Category Archives: Creative Thinking

Heaven and Hell for the OCD: SCRAP PDX

More places for my blog challenge!

I’ve only lived in the Portland area for a little over a year, and, like most crafters, I make friends with other crafters in part to find out the best (cheapest) places to find supplies. Several of my friends said that I must go to SCRAP PDX.

It took a while for me to make the time to head on out there, but I finally made the journey. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I’m not sure if the pictures in this blog will do the store justice, but the pics will certainly give you an idea of what wonders there are to behold.

As I walked through the store, my first thoughts included how impressed I felt at the level of organization. Although you may never have seen such an arrangement of random stuff, the fact that everything is arranged, labeled, separated into individual boxes, and often color-coded blows your mind away.

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At the same time, the sheer amount of everything, and the peculiar items for sale, can feel overwhelming, hence the heaven and hell in the title. Fortunately, the variety of items everywhere you look keeps you distracted, and it heightens your curiosity concerning what you’re going to find next.

Like many things in Portland, SCRAP PDX promotes the idea of minimizing waste, and their items for sale emphasize that idea to the extreme. These items for sale are often donated from individuals and businesses.

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While the majority of the items in the store are legitimate craft and art supplies, the rest of the items are somewhere between what most would call junk and what others would find typically at a flea market or garage sale.

With prices unbelievably low for the majority of items, this store is definitely the place for mixed-media artists to gather supplies and inspiration. Teachers also would make out like bandits at this store, especially on their limited budgets.

I feel that some, not all, of the fabric and notions were slightly overpriced for a secondhand store. I admit, I am a penny-pincher, so my view on prices is no doubt jaded.

Despite some overpriced fabric, SCRAP PDX seems like an excellent place for a multitude of customers. Similarly, if you just need a store to walk through and look around, your eyes will never want for more in a store like this.

SCRAP PDX, located at 1736 SW Alder Street in Portland, is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1999. They offer educational classes, including classes for children. Promoting greener living through reusing everything and anything, according to their site, “SCRAP diverted 140 tons of usable materials from the waste stream” in 2016. Find out more by visiting their website: www.scrappdx.org

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A Year of Paying It Forward with Indie Writers – What I Learned

As many of you know, I’ve spent this past year reading and reviewing the works of indie writers. In my initial blog post that outlined my goals and criteria, “Pay It Forward Indie Book Challenge,” I explained that one of the most difficult things for indie authors to accomplish involves getting people to review and rate their books. Reviews are essential, especially on platforms like Amazon, because reviews can boost your rankings and convince people to buy your books. So I decided I would help by reviewing a few indie writers.

This year (2016) I read four works by indie authors. Those works and my ranking for each one are as follows:

Atticus Crayle – The Accidental Spy: 3/5 stars

Revelation Game: 3/5 stars

Summer of the Brother: 2/5 stars

Legacy of the Dragons: 2/5 stars

If you click on any of the above four links, you can see that not only did I give an overall ranking, but I also provided extensive commentary about each book. I organized my comments under the four main criteria categories by which I judged. Those categories included the overall story, character development, grammar and technical issues, and distractions.

What Have I Learned from This Process?

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I think the first thing I learned was learned more by accident than by my actual review process. You see, I decided that I would only read works by indie writers who had few published works, few to no reviews, and whose works fell within a few specific genres. Since I was looking for such un-reviewed works, I had to dig through 20+ pages of Amazon just to get to any works that may have met my basic reading criteria.

In other words – I learned that indie writers with no reviews and no star rankings are buried so deep that they are pretty much invisible.

This is why it is so important for people to review products and services. The algorithms used for ranking and organizing products for sale online are highly influenced by customer reviews. Without those reviews, products and services are often moved further down the list. Therefore, if you really love an author, indie or otherwise, HELP THEM OUT BY GIVING THEM REVIEWS!!!

The second thing I learned from this challenge is the importance of a good editing process. Three out of the four books I read had significant grammar and technical problems that could have been easily fixed with a few more rounds of editing. Two out of the four books I read had major problems with flow and story continuity, and an observant editor could have been a big help in fixing those issues.

 

editor

While many independent writers have to do self-editing, because they can’t afford to pay someone else, I would really encourage people to find the money to hire someone, or, at a bare minimum, find a friend who can do a decent job of reading and responding to your work.

A non-professional editor may not be able to do hard-core grammar and technical editing, true, but an observant reader can at least tell you if the story makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense, you can make changes until everything works. THEN you publish it. Personally, my writing goes through 3-4+ drafts before I publish. I count myself lucky that I have an amazing editor who pushes me to be better in every way, and I am more thankful for my editor now, after completing this challenge, than I ever have been before!

The third thing I learned from this challenge has to do with some of the common practices/tropes of the supernatural/adventure genres. Three out of the four stories I read included an obvious or fairly strong romantic tie between characters. Apparently romantic connections are an all-too-familiar plot device in these genres. Nevertheless, I do not feel that all supernatural fiction must include this element, especially if it is poorly executed.

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In the stories I read, the use of romance between characters was hit or miss in terms of execution. In one of the stories, Atticus Crayle, the romance was a minor issue and more of a coming-of-age/teenagers under the control of their hormones type of deal. It made sense in the story and didn’t distract you from the plot. The romance in Summer of the Brother, on the other hand, came off forced, contrived, and absolutely useless to the plot. In Legacy of the Dragons, the romance kind of work, but it was really nothing more than a cheap plot device to explain an unnatural pregnancy that resulted in a human-dragon abomination, of which the abomination baby was stripped of its humanness, making the whole forbidden/unnatural pregnancy, and the romance connected to it, pointless in terms of story and plot.

Final Thoughts on This Challenge

Overall, I’m glad I completed this challenge. I would have liked to have read and reviewed more books, but I think completing four books is respectable. It was also invigorating to have a challenge that kept me going throughout the course of this year. In fact, I am currently brainstorming a new challenge for 2017.

While doing a reading challenge this year certainly rocked, I am thinking of going in a different direction. Now all I have to do is choose, and I am currently torn between two new ideas for next year’s challenge.

Maybe all of you can help me out by posting in the comments about which challenge you prefer.

Here are my ideas:

Food Exploration –I just moved to the Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA region, which means I’m in one of the most foodie-obsessed areas of the country. They’ve got everything here from high-class dining to unusual foods out of food trucks, so it might be fun to find unique places, try them out, and post my reviews here on my blog.

Pacific Northwest Travel Adventures – I am told there are a number of strange and obscure places to visit nearby or within reasonable driving distances. I like exploring. I like adventuring. Ergo, I could challenge myself to go to a number of different places and write about them here for your entertainment.

Best Places for Retro Sewing Patterns

I thought of the perfect gift for my partner! He loves the 1950s/1960s aesthetic of ladies dresses.

Therefore, my gift will be for him to choose a pattern, the fabric, and the notions. I will make the dress for me to wear, and the two of us will go out all dressed up!

Since I’m already looking for patterns, and because I enjoy helping my fellow crafters, I thought I would make a review of places that offer patterns for this project.


Old Patterns or New Patterns?

Since I am planning on making a dress that is 1950s/1960s, you might think it would be better for me to buy a pattern from that era. There are lots of places that sell these older patterns, as you will see below.

BE WARNED: older patterns are antiques, and potentially more expensive.

If you use older patterns, recognize that the instructions may expect sewers to be using older equipment and different types of fabric. We have come a long way in terms of sewing machines, textiles, and techniques in the past 50-60 years. Unless you are a skilled crafter who can figure out modern-day translations for older sewing instructions, you may want to stick with newer patterns that are mid-century inspired.

One Last Thought: Sizes

I am a size 16-20, depending on the dress maker. In other words, I am a curvy girl, and will never fit into something for a 36 inch bust. I’ve noticed that older patterns take into account for differences in height, but I’ve not seen many older patterns that accommodate for larger women. I know there were heavier women in these earlier decades, but you wouldn’t know it judging by the available pattern sizes.

I have made my own patterns from scratch and I have adjusted premade patterns to meet my measurement needs. That said, realize that doing so is a pain in the butt, and it ALWAYS requires additional mini adjustments.

Again, using older patterns is NOT for the novice sewer.


Patterns! Patterns! Patterns!

The Rusty Zipper.com

As you can tell from the link, they have a nicely organized site and sell their patterns at a decent price. When you click on individual categories, you can even select size options. Going through various pattern categories, though, I tried selecting the option for larger-sized patterns, but it often came up with no results. I scanned through the patterns that were available, and I noticed that several of them listed the measurements in the title. Most of the available patterns were for women much smaller than me, so pattern alterations would be necessary.

Eva Dress Patterns

For a smaller site, this one offers a good range of options and it is well organized. The prices are not OMG cheap, but for vintage patterns they are definitely reasonable. By the way, the range of clothing patterns from the 1930s category will blow you away!

Mrsdepew Mrs. Depew Vintage

So this is an Etsy store. If you look at Etsy in general for mid-century patterns, you’ll see plenty of options, but the prices range all over the place. In this particular Etsy shop, the owner has organized everything by decade, and she has kept her price point at a rate that is comparable to present day pattern prices. I also like that while there is a decade-specific aesthetic, the available patterns still cover a wide range of looks from that era.

DOWNSIDE–>Digital Downloads

Okay, perhaps not a total downside, since you have the option of printing patterns to accommodate plus size women. Nevertheless, you have to draft the patterns yourself. According to this tutorial listed on the Etsy site, the downloads give you a smaller pattern piece that you scale up through the methodology presented in the tutorial. As an experienced crafter, it looks straightforward, but it will add SO MUCH FREAKIN’ TIME!!! I would much rather get pattern pieces that are already printed to scale and ready to go.

Simplicity

One of the biggest manufacturers of patterns today, Simplicity has re-released/updated some old patterns from the 1950s, as seen with this link. If you follow this link, you’ll find some of the 1960s options. Not a whole lot of variety in either of these links, and the cost is typical of Simplicity’s brand. From my research, I know you can find some of these patterns on Amazon for FAR CHEAPER.

If you search on this site for vintage patterns for women, which is this link, you get a few more options. In the vintage section, I saw a couple great Agent Carter costumes =0), of course that’s 1940s, but they look phenomenal!

McCall’s

Don’t waste your time! Barely any options and all overpriced.

Vogue

There are a couple options for vintage Vogue patterns, but unless they’re on sale, they are pricey .

In case you don’t know, Vogue, Butterick, and McCalls are all owned by the same people, which might explain the lack of options. Under the Butterick label, there are a couple more options, but only so many. They’re at a slightly better price point, true, but I’ve always had issues with Butterick patterns not fitting well. Their directions haven’t always been clear, either.

And You Thought Dragons Didn’t Exist

Due to some scheduling issues, I have less time, so I can’t always do heavily researched or insightful blogs. When I must do short ones, I’ve decided to respond to a randomly selected writing prompt.

Today’s writing prompt comes from the Writing Forward website, and this list of 25 writing prompts was crafted by Melissa Donovan in 2014. Because I write about supernatural, fantasy, adventure, and horror, I decided to choose lucky number 13:

And you thought dragons didn’t exist…


The fires in the garden should’ve been my first clue, but the scorch marks were so small, I never would have imagined them to be the result of a dragon.

It started a week ago, when I found the rosebush devoid of all its beautiful blooms. Instead, every bud was blackened. I looked closer, worried that perhaps fungus or rot had infected my favorite rosebush, but there were no indications of such. The stems and leaves remained perfectly green. Only the rosebuds and petals were missing. I suspected those unruly teenagers from down the street had broken into my garden to ruin my roses. They had hated me for years, calling me witch and crone every time they passed. Surely those little hooligans had demolished my roses. I didn’t care what they called me, but if someone touches my roses, all bets were off!

I still had four beautiful rosebushes, so I suspected those little brigands would be back to finish the job. Their parents had never cared before about how their children had tormented me, so I knew they wouldn’t care now. I knew the only justice I would get would involve catching and trapping those little monsters in the act.

While the brats were in school, I placed sticky traps on top of all the fences. No doubt I would catch some of the birds, but once I caught the children in the act of vandalizing, I could call the police and have those punks taken off to jail.

I drank tea in my living room near the window that day during the afternoon as I watched all the teenagers pass in front of my house while they moved toward their respective homes. A few looked at my house tentatively. I memorized their faces.

All night I expected to be woken up by the cries of some poor young child caught on the fence, but there were no sounds.

When I woke up, I walked into the backyard to find my second rosebush had been burned like the first. Rosebuds singed and petals missing, but the rest of the plant was fine. Enraged, I inspected the sticky traps, and with the exception of insects, dust, and three unfortunate finches, there were no signs of anything jumping over my fence.

Could I have been wrong in my accusation? More importantly, if it wasn’t the children, then who was burning my roses?

I removed the sticky traps and decided that if I couldn’t catch the perpetrator this way, surely surveillance equipment would do the trick. A few of my lady friends at the Rotary were whizzes with recording equipment. I called them up, explained what had happened, and they agreed to come over and set up their cameras. They too were interested to know the truth about who was destroying my roses.

My friends told me to let the equipment run its course, and to just do what I normally do every day. I couldn’t stop thinking about who might be attacking my roses, but I convinced myself I needn’t worry, since the cameras would surely solve the mystery.

The next morning I went out to my garden and found that another one of my rosebushes had been freshly burned. The rosebuds were still smoking. Whoever had done it had to be close by, but I couldn’t see anyone out of the ordinary. Right away I phoned my friends, and they agreed to come over for all of us to view the footage.

Why I don’t understand all the technical particulars, the ladies explained that they had set up the camera to record only when there was movement, which they said would save us hours of viewing time. As we scanned through the footage, we saw the culprit.

I say saw the culprit, but I can’t say we believed what we saw.

The footage revealed that the culprit burning my roses was a tiny dragon no bigger than a bluejay. The footage showed the little dragon flying down from a nest in a nearby tree, landing on the rosebush, shooting fire out of its itsy bitsy little mouth, and catching the rosebuds and petals ablaze. It would eat the fiery roses one by one, and when it finished, it flew back up into its nest.

My friends and I stared in disbelief at the screen, uncertain of what we saw. I then hurried outside, followed closely behind by my friends. I went to the shed and pulled out the ladder. The ladies helped me set it up and steadied it for me as I climbed the ladder to look up in the nest that I had never noticed before. There, sleeping inside the nest, was the world’s smallest dragon. I reached into the nest and scooped up the dragon. It opened one eye to look at me, then closed its eye, unafraid, as it began to nuzzle my hand. I brought it down for the ladies to see, and all of us cooed over the tiny thing.

Now it sleeps in the house with me. I buy it fresh flowers to eat on a daily basis, although it doesn’t eat every day. Most of the time it flies around the house and plays with random objects, or it sits on my shoulder. My lady friends from the Rotary thought I should call it Rosebud, because of what it eats, but I didn’t like that name. I’m a traditionalist, after all, so I call it Draco. I’ve been crocheting Draco a harness and leash so that I can take my dragon out for walks in the neighborhood. After all, a tiny dragon pet is befitting for an old woman that everyone calls a witch.

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***The artwork of the old woman walking the dragon was found on this page by emilyada11. It is fantastic work, and it is one of the few pics I can find of an old woman and a tiny dragon.

Smokin’ Hot vs. Beautiful: What’s the Difference?

You might think these terms are interchangeable, or that they mean the same thing, but listen to the nuances:

  1. That girl is beautiful.
  2. That girl is smokin’ hot.

Do you see it now?

In western English, predominantly in the states, the second sentence above indicates a more attractive girl than the first sentence describes. In fact, the second sentence would usually be ended with an exclamation mark to emphasize the level of attractiveness, but I didn’t want to sway your judgment.

Beauty is based on a purely subjective scale – let’s not kid ourselves. With this example of two words that seem synonymous, yet have subtle differences, how does the ranking on that subjective scale work? More importantly, what are the effects of that ranking?

Splitting Hairs and Defining the Difference

We possess an endless stream of adjectives that describe the concept of beauty. Check out these examples:

  • Beautiful
  • Pretty
  • Attractive
  • Handsome
  • Lovely
  • Hot
  • Gorgeous
  • Charming
  • Stunning
  • Ravishing
  • Smokin’ hot

Grammatically, these words act as synonyms to one another, but given the rules of society, we attribute different levels of beauty or attractiveness to each of these terms. Sticking with just the two terms in the title of this post, what are the differences between smokin’ hot and beautiful?

Believe it or not, it comes down to general beauty versus specific beauty.

The term beautiful, along with several other of the above adjective examples, represents a general description of attractiveness. It lacks specificity. Thus, a wider range of items or individuals can be assigned to the term beautiful, because they meet the most general requirements of attractiveness.

For contrast, smokin hot wolf reactionlet’s look at the term smokin’ hot. The adjective, “hot” is being modified by the adverb, “smokin’.” In simple terms, it implies that a person’s attractiveness level is beyond just hot, and has reached such levels of beauty that it must be emphasized with an additional word.
The specificity of smokin’ hot is not used to describe just anyone. Unlike the general terms beautiful, pretty, or attractive, to be considered smokin’ hot requires that someone exceed the typical social construct of beauty. More often than not, this term is based solely on superficial appearances, and lends itself to completely objectify the female, male, or other subject in question.

Unintended Results of the Attractiveness Scale

I don’t want to talk about the psychological damages of not being considered beautiful, or the fact that the social construct of beauty often represents an unattainable standard.

What I want to talk about here pertains to the experiences of attractive women.

I myself know that I am beautiful. I do not say this to brag or to fish for compliments. I know where I am on the scale, I know how far I am from the American social construct of smokin’ hot, and I’m comfortable with that.

In my life, I have been fortunate enough to know several women who certainly rank within the smokin’ hot category. A few of them were even my fellow classmates during my undergrad and graduate studies. As I was thinking about writing this blog, I looked back at the shared experiences I had with these women, and I noticed some disturbing factors.

With one of the women I knew, I remember admiring her beauty from afar, because she was/is amazingly gorgeous, but I also remember she almost always sat against the wall or in the back, and she didn’t contribute much in class during our undergraduate studies. In fact, it wasn’t until graduate studies that I realized her level of brilliance. One of my professors had us make posts on an online messaging platform, and we had to reply to several of our classmates. As it was a small class, you got to see everyone’s internal thoughts rather quickly. Her interpretation of Renaissance literature blew my mind away! I had NO idea she had this level of skill or intelligence, because I got stuck on the gorgeous façade of her body.

From then on I made an effort to try and engage her to talk in class. I noticed others do the same. Granted, we were in a smaller class, and many of us had known each other for years within the major, and perhaps that made her feel more comfortable as well. When I started hanging out with her and some of the other grad students socially, she talked about her life and her experiences.

bitch facePeople hit on her constantly since she was a teenager, seeing her for nothing more than a trophy or a conquest. She tried dismissing them politely at first, but they didn’t stop, and often made her feel unsafe. She had to develop what she called the “bitch face” as a way to tell people to back off! Most of her life she had been seen but not heard, because her level of attractiveness was so high that people never expected anything out of her. She could have taken the easy road and let people do things for her, buy things for her, but that’s not who she was. Yes, physically she was and remains breathtakingly attractive, but she refuses to let her brilliant mind stay idle.
I had two other grad students in my class in similar situations. Both phenomenally gorgeous, and both also had to create facades that pushed people away. The bitch face defense seems a common tool among smokin’ hot women who are also blessed with brains.

As I thought about my female friends and how they dealt with this stigma of beauty, I thought about myself and what I have done.

Yes, I’m beautiful, but I never felt like people expected me to just sit there, say nothing, and be pretty. My level of beauty has always been pleasing enough that people enjoy my presence, but part of that enjoyment exchange has given me the access to be outspoken, to say my ideas without fear, and to have lengthy discussions with all manner of individuals. I’m sure that I get objectified for my level of attractiveness, but because I never had to contend with such dismissive behavior from onlookers, as my smokin’ hot friends have had to do, I learned early on how to assert my dominance in a conversation. My degree of beauty may have opened the door to these conversations, but I have always felt that people continued listening to me more for my mind than for my looks.

Brilliant Minds in Beautiful Bodies

agent-carter-9999Going beyond myself and my own experiences, I see similar examples in television today. The show Agent Carter,  for example, has the lead female character as both beautiful and brilliant. Physically, the actress playing Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell, is quite good-looking, but she is not considered by societal standards to be smokin’ hot.

I think this was a deliberate choice by the writers and directors.

By choosing a beautiful but not smokin’ hot actress to play Carter, it confirms the fact that if a woman is too beautiful she will NOT be listened to. Instead, she would be treated like how everyone treated the characters played by Marilyn Monroe, for instance – they patted the hot bombshell on the head and let her giggle her way through everything. They expected nothing more of her than for her beauty to please them.

In this season of Agent Carter – and by the way ***SPOILER ALERT*** – the show goes one step further to underscore this aspect of the attractiveness scale.

Peggy’s main adversary right now, Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), is a woman with such genius level intelligence that her brilliance is off the charts, as described in the show. Frost’s back story shows that she possessed a technological aptitude from a young age, but it also shows her having one of the great flaws of true genius, which is a lack of social skills. Frost’s mother, a single woman who has nothing except her looks to get her through life, consistently chastises her daughter for not being nice to the man who is taking care of them, a man who treats Frost’s mother as a kept woman/prostitute. As Frost grows up, her mother’s relationship with this man deteriorates, and when he finally leaves, Frost’s mother blames her daughter in part for not being nicer to him. The mother then takes the teenage Frost into the bathroom to show her her reflection and to tell her that no one in life will ever take her seriously for her brains, because she’s a woman.

(Remember, this is supposed to be early 1920s/1930s mentality).

From this impressionable age, Frost learns that she has to hide not only her intelligence, but her animosity towards those who see her only for her beauty. Instead of developing the bitch face, though, as 21st century women do, Frost does the exact opposite. She creates something akin to what I call the helpless doll face as a way to play on the desires of her onlookers, only to use those desires against them.

Frost uses people by letting them believe they are using her. She uses that leverage to get in a position of power. Frost becomes a famous movie actress married to a wealthy scientist/businessman. Through her power over her pushover husband, she can use her helpless doll face to manipulate him into practically anything, allowing her to assert her brilliance from the sidelines as she gets her husband’s company to lead their research down the scientific avenues of her choosing.

WhitneyFrost-Growing-Scar-Mirror

Of course, as she gets inflicted with zero matter, and becomes more physically powerful, she no longer needs her husband, and gets rid of him after he betrays her. Yet even with this immense power she now wields, the secret society of men she aligns herself with still mostly refuse to see her brilliance. All they can see is how the zero matter has scarred her once stunning face. To be honest, she still looks amazingly beautiful, even with the weird zero matter lines on her face, but the men’s reactions of absolute disgust to her visage further underscore the concept and trappings of the smokin’ hot label. These men have attributed everything she has, her worth, to her high level of beauty. In their eyes, without that beauty she loses everything, hence their reactions. They cannot see her as anything other than an object of beauty, despite her brilliance.

Due to the era and the social constructs, Frost chose to go with the whims of society and used their label of smokin’ hot against them. Manipulating people and navigating through the system allowed her to move far, even while being forced to the sidelines. In playing the game within a society that does not possess the same level of female mobility, compared to modern day society, though, Frost seals her own fate. By allowing society to label her as smokin’ hot, she will remain in the objectfied position, either as something wondrous for them to look at, or as a monster for them to try and control.

When the Lights Flicker Out

In the movies, we all know that when the lights start to flicker and go out, some seriously spooky stuff is about to happen. But what are you supposed to do when the lights flicker out on you?

I’ve been facing this problem for weeks now.

Let me catch you up on the situation – since November, I have been trying to kick my fitness routine up to 11. Instead of only working out 2-3 times a week, I work out Monday-Friday, every morning, in the super-early hours before the start of my busy morning schedule. None of the gyms nearby me are convenient, and their rates are high, so I’ve decided to use the walking path across from my street as my make-shift gym. In other words, I have no excuses NOT to work out.

Normally, I cross the street, walk around a parking lot, and then walk through a gate to go down the walking path. The parking lot and the gate are part of the elementary school across from me, and the walking path goes through a semi-posh, upper-class neighborhood.

While I’m sure my path is perfectly safe, and while I have walked it numerous times, sometime back in December the lights right by the gate to the walking path began to flicker out.

!!!HELLO PARANOIA!!!

The first time it happened just as I was walking up to the gate. The light, which probably goes on and off on a timer, flickered and went out.

I stopped dead in my tracks.

Now remember, it’s early morning in the winter. The sun has not come up over the hills, so it’s pre-dawn dark. When one light goes out, all the shadows look a billion times more menacing.

So what did I do?

I took it as a sign. I’ve seen way too many movies and read too many books where people ignore stuff like this, and they get horribly murdered. I will not be a statistic!

Instead, I now cross the street, walk around the parking lot to where the gate is, and I pass by the gate to walk back and forth up and down the sidewalk from where the school begins to the end of the property about two blocks away. I still work out for the same amount of time, but instead of the serenely quiet walk through a slumbering neighborhood, I walk back and forth on a busy street with lots of lights.
when-the-lights-flicker-normal-people-me-get-the-saltThe weird thing – the light still flickers, but only when I get close. It doesn’t flicker every morning, so I know it’s not motion sensors. In walking back and forth on my new path, the light sometimes flickers its supernatural warning, as if something or someone wants me to know that dangers still lie in wait.

I accept that it could just be a problem with the wiring. Of course, that is always what they say right before the ax murderer sneaks into your house and kills you.

Tradition and Interesting Typos

keep_calm_and_write_obits_mug_jumbo_mug-r74dfe68aeaed40f0a8f1808b18374e75_2wn1h_8byvr_325Of all the documents you write, you definitely want to avoid typos on an obituary. It’s most likely the last thing anyone will ever read about your deceased loved one, so you want the obituary as close to perfect as possible. If you’re a professional writer, like me, the pressure for perfection is on!

As you know from my previous post, I was staying with family as we waited for my father to pass. He finally did pass a few weeks ago – quietly, in his sleep, and in his own home – and after he passed my mom, my family, and I began getting everything in order for the services. We wanted to get the obituary out somewhat quickly, because my dad made friends with practically everyone he had ever met, and we figured that between Facebook and the obituary that we would reach all parties interested in attending his services.

I volunteered to write the obituary, and I took the time to read through some local obituaries to see comparisons for format and the like. I then wrote down some notes, tinkered with my notes for a while, and finally had a first draft ready to read to my mom and my Aunt. My mom gave me a few corrections about specific dates, but overall she was cool with the content and layout.

Before I officially posted it with the newspapers, I reread and proofread it at least three or four times. As far as I could tell, everything seemed accurate, so I submitted it to the newspapers and received confirmation and PDF proofs almost immediately. I printed the proof so that other family members could see what the obituary would look like. One of my family members came to the house and read through the proof. At the time, I was in the other room, but I could hear the family member as he commented,

“Shouldn’t this be ‘is survived by’?”

From the other room, I rolled my eyes, but instead of starting a fight, I bit my tongue. Emotions were high, after all, as it had only been three days since my father had passed. So I called out that if I had made a typo, it was too late now, and that I was sorry for missing an error. I later looked at the proof and saw that I had put “has survived by.”

Typo or Perfectly Apropos?

My mom, my partners, and everyone else said not to worry about a tiny mistake like that, especially with all the other stress on my mind at the time. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In part, it upset me so much because of how the family member had pointed out my error in such a brusque manner. I also got frustrated at myself, since this would be the last thing anyone would read about my dad.

Then I started to think about the wording and its meaning. Most of the obituaries I reviewed used “is survived by.” But what exactly does that mean?

If you were to say, “Frank is survived by his wife and his children,” what you mean is that his wife and his children are still alive and that Frank is now dead. The whole point of the obituary is to announce the fact that Frank has already died, so we don’t need to be told a second time with the whole “is survived” statement. I suppose by including “is survived” that it lets people know that Frank’s wife and children are still alive, which at a time before the Internet would be an important detail to know. In our modern era, though, such a practice and such phrasing seems antiquated and obsolete at best.

Now think about the phrasing I used – “has survived by.”

This phrase only changes one word. Instead of using the verb “to be” conjugated as “is”, I’m using the verb “have” conjugated as “has.” The word “have” can be linked to a multitude of definitions, but ultimately the word implies some sort of ownership, or the word describes a quality or state of being that something possesses.

Let’s go back to my example sentence, but let’s change “is” to “has.”

To say that “Frank has survived by his wife and his family,” would mean that his very survival in life, up to his last breath, was dependent completely upon his relationship with his wife and family.

tradition and changeAt present, “is survived by” still serves as the traditional phrasing for most obituaries, and when it comes to death, many of us cling to our traditions out of fear and familiarity. Personally, for my father at least, I think this interpretation of “has survived by” more closely fits who he was and what he cared about. For many people, I think this might be a better, albeit more modern way of expressing their connection to their lost loved ones. So perhaps it’s time to embrace this typo as a sign for change.

Piecemeal Editing, (or), How I’ve Been Spending My Time As of Late

missing-puzzle-pieceOne of the biggest editing problems for a novel-length manuscript is how to deal with making changes on reoccurring issues while maintaining continuity.

My answer – piecemeal editing.

What Is It?

While you will have errors-a-plenty on your first draft, by the second or third draft you should only have a certain amount of issues to fix. Therefore, if you only have a given number of issues, then you’re not editing the entire manuscript. Your only fixing small pieces, hence the piecemeal mentality.

***Please note that by issues I mean elements like character development, continuity, story arc, climax, clue dropping, and conclusions. I’m not talking about grammar problems or typos – save those issues for the line edit of your final FINAL draft.***

Steps for Conducting a Successful Piecemeal Edit

You might be thinking that fixing smaller pieces will make everything easier. After all, handling small chunks of your manuscript is far more manageable than tackling the entire beast. Unfortunately, your story doesn’t exist as a bunch of separate small pieces, it exists as a whole, and this is where piecemeal editing gets tricky.

How do you possibly tweak and change small parts without ruining the entire manuscript?

Step #1 Identify Your Problem Areas

If you have a reader, this process is way easier. If you are your only reader, then you’re going to have to give yourself some time to forget the manuscript you wrote and come back to it with fresh eyes. Ultimately, you want a list of ALL your major issues. Some of those issues may include:

  • Unclear character motivations
  • Character descriptions/mannerisms not consistently displayed
  • Not enough clues/clues don’t make sense
  • Reveal moments are too obvious or way out in left field
  • Too much info not essential to plot

Step #2 Break up Your Pieces

Some issues are super specific, but others are more general. When it comes to piecemeal editing, you really need bite-sized pieces you can handle. Read through your list of issues and find ways to break down those general issues into smaller pieces. For example, if you’re having problems with character descriptions, is that for all characters or only a few? If you are only missing details for a few characters, write out those character names. You want your list of issues to be precise, so you can focus on one small issue at a time.

Step #3 Find and Fix All the Way Through

findIf you have never used the find feature on your word processing program, now is the time. For those using Word, type Ctrl+F to bring up a menu on the left side of your screen. In that menu will be a blank space to enter words or phrases. Once you enter the information, the program will search through your manuscript and find every time you use that specific word or phrase. This makes it super simple to find character/group names quickly.

Now – take your list and work through one problem at a time.

Be warned, though, that whatever you change in one part of your manuscript will ripple out to other areas. So use the find feature to locate every time a specific person or incident is mentioned.

If you need to change a character’s mannerisms, for instance, use the find feature to locate the character’s name, then identify the establishing incident of the mannerism. Next, find every time in your manuscript that the character is mentioned. Obviously, you will NOT need to remind your reader about the mannerism every time you mention the character’s name, but it is something you will need to remind your reader about every so often. Thus, using the find feature lets you jump around quickly so that you can space out how often you mention this information.

This step will take you the longest to complete, because you have to repeat the process for every item on your list. Additionally, if you don’t know which words or phrases to look for, the find feature won’t be very helpful. For the items on your list that cannot be easily found, try to fix them as best you can, but circle those items on your list instead of crossing them off. Circling them implies that you have addressed the issue, but there may be a few spots that need more changes, which is what the next step is all about.

Step #4 Final Read Through

Give yourself some time between the piecemeal editing of step #3 and this final step – you want to be as objective as possible for this final read through. As you read over your manuscript, keep your list of issues nearby. Remind yourself every so often about the circled areas. If you come across one of those circled issues that has not been fixed, fix it and move on.

Sometimes fixing requires changing stuff from earlier on, so do what you have to do. When you do go backwards to make changes, start your reading from that earlier point. You may have to make further adjustments that you didn’t think about.

After you go through your entire manuscript and address all your issues, give it back to your readers to see if everything works out. Once they give it the green light, hand it over to your line editor and get ready for the publication formatting process.

Are there really any Captain Tuttles?

s1tuttle_eulogyWhether you grew up watching M*A*S*H or have been watching it in syndication, you may remember the Captain Tuttle episode from the first season. In the episode, Hawkeye and Trapper have secretly donated a large amount of supplies to Sister Teresa’s orphanage. When she asks who signed for all the donations, Hawkeye says that Captain Tuttle did it. Little does the Sister know that Hawkeye has completely made up Tuttle. The rest of the episode is spent building a false identity for Tuttle, making people believe they have met him on several occasions, and then, at the end, Hawkeye, Trapper, and Radar fake Tuttle’s death and have a funeral for him, allowing everyone in the camp to mourn the great man.

Of course, comedic as the episode may be, it made me start to wonder about how easy it would be to fake the existence of a soldier, and to what benefit, or detriment, would doing so achieve.

Legalities and Reality

First of all, there are numerous laws in place to stop people from unlawfully impersonating a member of the military. Some of the most known laws are as follows:

18 U.S. Code § 702 – Uniform of armed forces and Public Health Service
This code makes it illegal for anyone to wear the recognizable uniforms of military personnel or public health officers. Therefore, if you authentically dress up like a soldier, you can be fined or imprisoned.

Stolen Valor Act of 2013
According to this law, it is illegal for anyone to pretend that they were awarded with military medals or honors. It’s mainly targeted at people who are using the false pretenses of being a decorated military hero to con money out of people.

There are also other laws and codes to stop people from falsely obtaining military and/or vet benefits, such as housing loans, money for education, or medical coverage.

Fun Fact – because of laws like the ones listed above, people believe that military uniforms are not portrayed correctly in movies and on television as a way to avoid getting arrested. Jeff Schogol rips this urban legend apart in his article, “Why can’t Hollywood get military uniforms right?”  In his article, Schogol explains that it has very little to do with avoiding legal action as much it has to do with some wardrobe designers and directors simply not doing their homework.

If you will notice, though, the majority of these laws are focused on civilians impersonating military personnel. These laws and codes also focus more on physical actions. For instance, you cannot wear an outfit and you cannot say you have a military medal. Neither of these laws cover creating fictitious soldiers that only exist on paper.

Of course, there is the following law:

18 U.S. Code § 1028 – Fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents, authentication features, and information
Now this code has a multitude of subsections, and amendments have been added to this law periodically since the 1970s. In essence, though, this code says it is illegal to create, buy, sell, or lend false identification documents, which of course makes it illegal to use false identification documents as well.

Besides the above listed code, there are also many other laws that govern identity theft and other fraud related crimes, most of which would stop law-abiding civilians from creating any fictitious persons. Ideally, the same laws should stop military personnel as well.

Conspiracy or Possibilities

No matter how many rules exists, some people still go outside of the law, even members of the military. So, one has to ask:

Is it possible that some senior members of the military could have created imaginary soldiers that only exist on paper?

The United States has one of the largest military forces in the world, and with so many soldiers, plus a never-ending supply of paperwork, hypothetically it would not be that difficult to add a few personnel files to the stacks. It’s not like the records keepers match every physical file with a physical person, after all! Therefore, it certainly seems possible that such actions could be going on in our own armed forces branches.

But if the military were creating a bunch of Captain Tuttles, as it were, what would be the end goal?

If you have soldiers, what else do you have? A paper trail. That paper trail includes everywhere the soldier has been, who they’ve served with, medical history, etc. There’s also information about when and how that soldier has been paid. Thus, if you farmed the identities of a bunch of fictitious soldiers, theoretically you could harvest those soldier’s paychecks. Data posted on Military.com showed that in the early 2000’s, “the entry-level base salary for commissioned officers, such as soldiers with a rank of second lieutenant, [was] $26,200 a year.” So, if you created 100 Captain Tuttles, for instance, then that would gross 2.6 million a year. That sort of slush fund could definitely be used to finance other projects, perhaps even projects no one would want on record.

Other than collecting salaries, another potential use for fictitious soldiers would be to handle fallout. For example, if the military were to make a mistake that caused major civilian casualties, someone would have to take the blame for those actions. If you had a whole group of fictitious soldiers, each with his or her identity carefully farmed to have a lengthy paper trail of authenticity, you could use one of those fictitious identities as the fall guy. It would be as easy as broadcasting the name and having a fake military trial. Perhaps have an actor pretend to be the fictitious soldier. Or, if using an actor were too risky, use a deep cover operative from one of the recognized or clandestine alphabet soup agencies. Whichever happened, someone would be blamed in public, and society would feel as if they received justice.

I will grant you, both of the above reasons do paint the military in a very negative light. It is completely possible that some members of the military might choose to create a bunch of Captain Tuttles in secret for nobler purposes.

Robin_Hood_LEGO_figureFor instance, in M*A*S*H, Hawkeye falsifies the paperwork to get Tuttle’s back pay, and then he donates that money to Sister Teresa’s orphanage in Tuttle’s name. He also claims that Tuttle named Sister Teresa’s orphanage as the beneficiary to his death benefits. By giving to charity, Hawkeye avoids benefiting himself from the creation of this false identity. In many ways, it seems that Hawkeye models his actions on the Robin Hood ideology, stealing from the rich military and giving to the poor orphans. Perhaps then, if any members of our military were to produce their own Captain Tuttles, then they would do well to take a page from Hawkeye Pierce and make sure that the creation of any fake soldiers was only done to benefit the masses.

Sleeper Agents: Truth, Lies, & Tropes

BRIDGET REGANIf you’ve been watching ABC’s Marvel’s Agent Carter, you have no doubt seen this character in the last few episodes. Dottie Underwood appeared in the show as just another girl from the Midwest coming to the big city. At first it seemed that her character would be nothing more than a fellow tenant at The Griffith, a women-only apartment complex that does not allow men above the first floor. It became pretty clear, however, that Dottie Underwood was not who she seemed.

As a hitman comes to take revenge on Carter, Dottie comes out of her room, which happens to be adjacent to Carter’s room. She sees that the strange man has a gun, so she does the following:

That’s right! That sweet persona is nothing but a cover! Dottie Underwood is a Russian sleeper agent.

Sleeper Agents in Fiction

Ever since the Red Scare of the Cold War, the idea of a Russian sleeper agent has been the go-to trope for bad guys. As Maki points out in his article, “Jason Bou(Rn)e He Aint,”  the sleeper agent makes such a good archetype for a villain, because it capitalizes on our fears of betrayal. In a society where people deal with so many strangers throughout the day, the idea that those people we hold closest to us could be deceiving us frightens us to the core. That’s what makes for such great plot twists and drama. You never expect that the sweet and boring people around you could also be highly-trained secret agent assassins.

Dottie Underwood is definitely not the first, nor will she be the last, sleeper agent for Marvel. Black Widow also has a past as a deep cover Russian agent. Depending on which origin story you read, though, her character goes back and forth between being a sleeper agent, double agent, and so forth. In the recent version of Black Widow on The Avengers and connecting movies, where Black Widow is played by the vivacious and talented Scarlet Johansson, the character acts like a mercenary, but she does seem to have loyalty to Fury, Hawkeye, and Captain America.

Outside of the world of comics, other movies and television shows have taken advantage of the sleeper agent trope. In the FX show The Americans, which is set in the 1980s, two Russian spies live under false identities within the suburbs of Washington D.C. in order to infiltrate the American government. In 2010, Philip Noyce directed the film Salt, which included the actress Angelina Jolie portraying a Russian sleeper agent.

fx_americans_keyart_p_2012MOV_7c3f73e9_b

Truth and Lies about Sleeper Agents

Some people wonder that if the sleeper agent trope is used in fiction, do sleeper agents actually exist?

Yes – but the reality of sleeper agents is nowhere near as interesting as the fictitious stories.

As recently as 2010, a network of Russian spies was uncovered operating in the United States. Anna Chapman, noted as the “Russian Spy Babe” by the media at the time, was one of the spies in this network. If you want to know the back story of all the spies in the network, check out Wired’s article, “Who’s who in the Russian spy ring.”

So what exactly did these scary Russian spies do? Did they find major secrets? Assassinate heads of state?

Like I said, nothing that interesting.

Most of them came to the states and lived here for 10 years before they were caught. A major part of being a sleeper agent is maintaining one’s cover, which means living a regular life so no one suspects you of doing anything else. As they developed their regular lives, part of their mission, as far as the FBI could figure out, was to network with Americans who had power or influence over policy-making individuals or entities. In other words, these deep cover agents were setting themselves up to be connected to people who could make things happen. Whether they could have manipulated these people, or if they did, is not entirely clear.

Two of these spies within this network did allegedly try to recruit their son, but not in the way that Carter’s Dottie Underwood was recruited. No – the Russian spies did not send their son off to some creepy camp for kids to be brainwashed and trained to kill their bunk-mates. Instead of that extreme measure, the parents relied on good old-fashioned propaganda. These parents pushed the idea of patriotism to mother Russia onto their impressionable son, and he believed the propaganda wholeheartedly, and supposedly agreed to become a sleeper agent.

Propaganda and patriotism tend to work very well for recruiting young people. After all, these youngsters are in the midst of trying to prove themselves and develop their identities. It’s one of the reasons that military forces in most developed countries tend to recruit high school students.

Young adults in the age group of 14-18 are highly impressionable, they want to feel like they belong, and they want to make a difference. Propaganda stories about nobility, honor, duty, etc., are just what these teens want to hear, and they will dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to “the cause.”

The people caught in the Russian network of spies were one type of sleeper agent. They can also be identified as deep cover agents. In the world of espionage, Dr. John Prados, an intelligence historian and a senior fellow at the National Security Archive in D.C., reveals that deep cover agents who are in fact sleeper agents stay inactive for years as they develop and maintain their cover identities. They might be passively putting themselves into better positions as they develop their cover IDs, but the main goal of a deep cover agent is to infiltrate, and you can only do so if no one suspects you of being a spy.

In an interview conducted by Gwynne Watkins about the FX show The Americans, Watkins asks Dr. Prados to explain whether he would categorize the show’s main characters as deep cover sleeper agents. Dr. Prados argues that the main characters were at one point sleeper agents establishing their cover IDs, but in the show they have been activated, since they are engaging in active intelligence gathering.

The other common type of sleeper agent, and a major trope as well, is the concept of the brainwashed victim being turned into a secret agent. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the main character is brainwashed into following instructions upon being given some sort of code word that puts the main character in an altered state of mind. Although the methods used to brainwash the main character were hyped up for the speed of the plot and for the sake of fiction, the idea of conditioning a person into becoming a spy may not be so unheard-of after all.

contrlcjpbAnnalee Newitz reported in her article, “The story of the real-life Salt, a supermodel brainwashed into becoming a CIA spy,” about how during the 1940s the CIA used hypnotism and experimental medication on Candy Jones, a supermodel and writer, to force her into developing a split personality. When given the right activation code, (i.e., hypnotic suggestion), Jones’s conditioned alternate personality, Arlene, would take over and do whatever tasks needed to be done. Newitz points out that all the information in her article, including some of the depictions of the depraved extremes that Arlene’s handler pushed her into doing, have yet to be confirmed by any government agency, and that all of these claims are based on the reports by Jones herself. According to this article, which gives far more details about Jones’s life and her involvement with the CIA, most of the information recovered about her past and her forced split personality was discovered through regressive hypnosis treatments performed on her by her husband.

The Reality of Sleeper Agents

Yes, sleeper agents have been proven to exist. From a completely strategic point of view, it’s a lot easier to get information and to influence other countries with counter intelligence if you have undercover agents put in place to infiltrate different groups from within. But the entire aspect of building cover identities and maintaining those identities is anything but glamorous. As Dr. Prados points out,

“Let’s just say [that nearly everything that happens in most spy shows is] contrived. In general, spying is boring.”

Deep cover agents spend so much time trying “to remain anonymous,” per Dr. Prados, that unless they are activated, these sleeper agents are simply not out there beating people up or killing anyone, because it would risk their cover.

Then why do we see sleeper agents like Dottie Underwood ninja-bouncing off the walls and breaking people’s necks? Because it looks awesome! Sure, you could argue that if her cover ID was designed to get her close to Carter, then taking out anyone who would kill Carter would be a reasonable risk.

That string of logic aside, though, you have to remember that at the end of the day, Dottie Underwood is a work of fiction. Her story is meant to excite viewers and to create further tension between the main characters. The bulk of her undercover life, like her going to Brooklyn or her waiting around at The Griffith, is never really showed much onscreen, because the life of an undercover sleeper agent is, for the most part, as humdrum as any other persons’ life.