Sunday, December 23, 2012

Writing and Getting Published

Let me say a short thank you to my two dozen or so devoted readers.  I originally started this blog as a way to share my military-related writing, but it has assumed its own direction.  I've called myself a writer since early 2008, but thus far I have never published.  I have been paid for writing a pamphlet for a bank about how pre-paid credit cards work, a job I found online.  I was paid $15, and I didn't receive any credit or byline.  I've made a few dollars each quarter from Yahoo, but nothing I ever wrote went viral.  The most popular piece I have online is an educational article about uterine fibroid tumors on Yahoo that has been read almost 8,000 times.

Just before Thanksgiving, I decided to explore a whim, and I wrote a short-short fictional piece.  For those non-writers, a short-short, or micro-short, does not have anything to do with Daisy Duke, although I suppose it could.  In such stories, the author has less than 1,000 words to set a scene and try to make a point.  There isn't much time for the type of explanation and exposition that the first paragraph of this blog contains, for instance.

I was immediately faced with two challenges.  First, I don't normally write fiction, and I certainly have never tried horror or suspense.  Scary movies make me laugh, and I've seen enough real-world carnage that it would be pretty hard for me to be suspenseful.

Secondly, unlike a research paper, writing less is actually more difficult.  I had no time to introduce the reader to the character, set themes, and build anticipation.  The outlet that I had chosen for my piece has a strict word limit of 666 words (yes, it's a horror publication), and the outline for my first story exceeded that.  So I went back and revised the story, changing it to a single scene, with just enough background to make it work.  My 100-word outline for this story quickly expanded to 500, so I cut things out as I put things in, sort of my own personal fiscal-cliff negotiation with myself.  As I reached the limit, I went back and eliminated any phrase with more than one adjective, and slicing off every piece of small fat. 

I added one or two pieces back, and ended up with exactly 666 words, a fact I thought might please this particular publisher.

The website I had chosen from the 2012 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, a heavy paperback commonly accepted as the place to look when one is ready to sell a work.  I had dutifully read some of the published work, and I thought haughtily, "I can write better than that."  I still believe this to be true.  Since the site accepts about 50% of what they receive, I was hopeful as I sent my presh-isss to their editor to be considered.  Since they promised a reply within a week, I checked my inbox daily.

Thirteen days later, I eagerly clicked on the incoming e-mail, but my giddiness was doused with a small bucket of "Your submission doesn't meet our needs."  They didn't write it quite like that - in my recent memory I seem to think it was more like, "We think your story sucks."  Hey, I'll remember things the way I want.

For some reason, I didn't stop.  I opened the guide again, and saw another website that published monthly.  They receive 100-200 submissions/month and publish about a dozen.  After browsing their guidelines, they made it very clear that they had enough material for the next year.  I wasn't hopeful, but off it went again to another editor.  This one promised a 3 month response time, so I forgot about it.

This time it only took six days.  I opened my inbox and did click.  The reply was equally short.

"Your story has been selected for publication in the October 2013 issue."

The publication is called Ascent Aspirations, an e-zine published in Canada.  I'm not being paid, but that's not why I want to be a writer.  There are plenty of more efficient ways to be paid.

I want to be read.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Big and The Small

Today's post is short, but I hope my readers will take the time to give it a Like, Digg, Stumble, +1, or even a Share.

Saturday my family and I went out walking.  We were actually looking for a local street event that we never quite found.

One thing we found instead was a man in a park, letting his puppy run around in the grass.

There are things in this world that make me feel very big.

Later, as we made our way to the ocean, we saw a gray sunset, the water still lit with the warmth of a sun that we couldn't quite feel.

There are things that make me feel very small, too.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reflecting in Huancayo

There’s nothing like waking up to the sunlight.  With the foggy weather of Lima, it had been months, but this morning we woke in a humble little hotel in Huancayo called “Grandma’s House.”  It was cheap, clean, and cheap, my three requisites.
Lucho, our guide, met us out front, and within minutes of the ride to our first stop, we could tell that Huancayo was nothing like our corner of Lima.  It felt more rural, more…normal.  The tiny museum was in the corner of a tiny suburb, and a group of kids, well dressed from mass, were gathered in the town square, which might have been a hundred feet across.  We were quickly the main attraction.

As we were greeted with staccato choruses of “good morning,” Lucho explained that they learned some basic English in school, but didn’t understand much.  Once they realized that we spoke Spanish, they were a bit quieter, but a few talked with us like kids do.

After a five-minute tour of the museum, which was just one room, we walked down some stone steps to a set of ruins about the size of a basketball court.  A few hundred years ago, the Catholics had covered the ruins with dirt, in an effort to bury the religious beliefs of several millennia.  Surprise, the Peruvians have shovels.

Walls several feet thick surrounded a central courtyard filled with thick green clover and two ancient, twisted trees.  Shallow pits walled with stone graced the center courtyard, where we saw three men quietly meditating near one of them.  An older one was talking quietly to the other two, who were about our age.  We stepped quietly passed them, not seeking to disturb, and kept to other parts of the sacred place.

Our respectful gesture may have impressed the old man, because he spoke to Lucho, and we were invited to sit next to them in the circle under one of the twisted 500-year old trees.  In the center, a small bundle of candles burned with black smoke, and a cloth with various objects sat near.  The objects, as Lucho explained, represented various aspects of life, like the sea, or Mother Earth.  There was also a small bowl of coca leaves and cheap cigarettes near the candles.

The old chief offered each of us a handful of coca leaves from a small bag, we were to sort them and pick out the best three (the number three representing the heaven, the earth, and the underworld) and place those back into the bowl, a gesture of recognizing the gods for what we had been given.

The rest of the leaves we quietly chewed while we made small talk with the old man. The old man then offered a pinch of ashes to go along with the coca – apparently the lye in the ash serves to “unlock” the spiritual properties of the leaf.  I’m pretty sure it’s just chemistry.  I did as our guide did, wetting the leaf in my mouth and blotting in onto the ash, then placing it in my cheek.

I don’t remember anything after that.

I’m kidding.  A person would need several pounds of coca leaves to feel any significant effect, and even then, the leaves are unprocessed, not like the concentrated, alkaline substance produced by the ton a few dozen miles further into the jungle.  The raw leaves are either chewed or brewed into a tea, which is stimulating, but not as much as caffeine.  It also fixes nausea and a host of other things.

I didn’t see any little pink elephants (elephants are in Africa anyway) but my mouth got a little tingly, and the altitude headache I had been coping with most of the morning disappeared.  

Any euphoria I felt was caused by a quiet minute to sit down, without the noise of the city, and just talk quietly with people with whom we shared little in common, other than simply being human.  We all felt incredibly lucky that they had shared this intimate and important part of their lives with us.

After a few minutes we stood up, thanked them, and moved quietly elsewhere.  We spent a few minutes hunting four-leaf clovers in the old courtyard, which Lucho said were lucky even in the pre-Inca culture.  

“The odds of a four-leaf clover are about one in ten-thousand, and a five-leaf is a one-in-a-million chance, and although sometimes certain patches have lots of them, that’s not normal.”

He looked at me skeptically, like he didn’t trust my facts.  It is true that 72% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

I told him about hunting them with my Grandparents when I was a kid, not being any good at it, and that I had found a 5-leaf only once in my life.

Five seconds later I plucked a five leaf, and held it out to him.


“Remember these things, children do.  Yours will remember this, too.”

Lucho may be a long-haired hippie looking, Yoda-talking, Inca tour-guide dude, but he’s a pretty smart guy.

Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us.  They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, even hikes through the jungle, depending on what you would like to see in or around Huancayo.  Ask for Lucho.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Highest Train in the World

Okay, the second highest.  The Chinese had to build one, too, but they spent $3 billion on theirs.  The train I speak of is the Central Andean Railway, or Ferrocarril Central Andino, in South America.  The line was completed over a hundred years ago, and while today it is used mostly for cargo, on occasion a passenger train still runs from Lima over the mountains to the city of Huancayo, Peru.

My family and I set out early to Desamparados Station in downtown Lima (it means “departures” in Spanish) for the 7 a.m. train.  Unlike most things in Peru, we expected it to be on time, and it was.  We were in tourist-class, which meant slightly more legroom and access to a lounge.  While the seats are modern, the walls of the train are covered in wood and brass, reminiscent of the age.

The passenger car was built in the 1930s, and evidence of this can still be seen

The 13-hour ride starts near sea level, and ascends an average of 27 feet per minute into the Andes mountains, which make the Rockies look like foothills.  68 bridges, 71 tunnels, and 9 “zigzags” punctuate the trip.  The zigzag is self-explanatory, a simple, yet brilliant way for the train to ascend a few hundred feet in an otherwise impassable area.

 This photo illustrates the scale of the Andes, when compared with the highway below

Enough boring statistics, because that doesn’t do this trip justice.  Facing rearward, and after rolling handily through the outskirts of Lima for almost an hour, we picked up speed and steamed around the mountains and gorges near Peru’s desert coast.  We saw entire fields full of giant prickly-pear cactuses, their pods used to make dye, but I thought it was a great guard against intruders.

Our first stop was a small train station and roundhouse.  The locomotive had to be turned around so it could pull us up the mountain.  We were distracted by an old steam engine and missed the action, but the roundhouse was old-school – no hydraulics.  Using nothing but gravity and leverage, a single man can rotate a 50-ton modern locomotive in about a minute.  One of the passengers was allowed to perform this task.  To me, this type of 19th century engineering makes the iPhone look rather obtuse.

Facing forward again, we spent the next five hours chugging up mountain after endless mountain, seeing amazing waterfalls, gorges, mountain villages, and alien vegetation.  I must not forget about the alien plants – imagine the top of a pineapple, except fifteen feet across and ten feet high.  Out of the top, grows a flower that looks like a giant stalk of asparagus, but crooked and snakelike, straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.  The kind of plant that makes me nervous if I get too close to it, because it looks like it might just eat me, or at least sniff the back of my neck.

The train finally reached its highest point at 15,583 feet, which I believe is about a thousand feet higher than Pike’s Peak.  By this time, several passengers had received supplemental oxygen, although I felt fine.  Actually, I felt better than fine.  In spite of my avoidance of the bar-car, other than for some sightseeing and photo-taking from the open rear section, I was absolutely giddy – without the best oxygen supply, my brain seems to interpret everything from cancer to genocide as the funniest things ever – I think we were 2,000 feet down the mountain before I could wipe the smile off my face, but I came up with the most interesting conspiracy theory about the link between the Curiosity mission to Mars and the Federal Reserve Bank.  I wrote it down, and that may be the subject of a later post.

By the last third of the trip, we were all pretty beat, and ready for it to be over, but occasional view of snow-capped peaks or rushing rivers kept us going until sunset.  A few more trips to the lounge car at the end of the train, just to give us an excuse to stand, proved helpful, although it raised another question to my oxygen starved mind:  there is enough lateral movement that the walk through four cars to get to the bar feels like a condemned ride at Disneyland, yet in all the movies, the heroes and villains always end up fighting on top of the train.  We could barely stand up in the center of the thing without holding on.

 This is the entire train, taken from the open lounge car at the rear of the train

The last hour or so of the trip was in the dark.  Even that proved fascinating – so far away from the scourge of civilization, there are only a few million extra stars to look at.

Because we were so thrilled with his service, I am going to insert a shameless plug here for our guide, IncasdelPeru, who set the whole thing up for us.  They offer train packages, but will tailor a custom tour for your family, depending on what you would like to see in Huancayo.  Ask for Lucho.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

World War Two Vets Released After ANC Incident

Arlington, VA --- Three elderly men have been released from custody after initially being accused of peace disturbance and aggravated assault at Arlington National Cemetery, police said.

Roy Eggert, 89, Bill Wallace, 91, and Fred Wahlberg, 93, were gathered near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a ceremony marking Veteran’s Day.  Each of the men is a veteran of World War Two.

According to initial reports, Retired Army Master Sergeant Eggert and silver star recipient spotted a young woman taking a photo of her friend near the tomb.  The second woman was crouched next to a sign reading “Silence and Respect” with her middle finger raised.

Wallace, a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and former sniper, attempted to chamber a round into his M1903 ceremonial rifle, but was stopped short by a suggestion from Wahlburg, who served in the south Pacific, and left the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer following the Korean conflict.

“I thought it was warranted, don’t get me wrong,” said Wahlburg in a brief statement to the press following his release.  “I just told Bill it would be better if we keelhauled her, and he thought it was a great f**king idea.”

Police arrested the men while they argued about the best place to find a suitable ship, he added.

A law-enforcement spokesman stated that the men were held for several hours, but once the young lady’s photo appeared on her Facebook page, police were unable to find any witnesses to the incident.

(Disclaimer:  The above piece is written as satire)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Saying “Thank You” to Veterans

It’s probably happened to most of us in uniform – a free beer, dinner, or even a surprise upgrade to business class.  Americans wish to support a random vet by saying ‘thank you for your service.’

It’s well received, and I am grateful, but it makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don’t always know what to say.  The source of my discomfort is a simple matter of sacrifice.

I don’t feel like I’ve done that.  Sure, I’ve been away from my family for years of my life, endured searing heat, loneliness, and dust that can only be described as a living thing.  As a medical officer, I have seen things that I would rather not remember, much less describe.

I’ve never lost a limb, or my life.  But I know people who have.  I’m not serving anymore, but I still have friends in harm’s way.  There are so many others who deserve your thanks more than I do.

A few years ago, I delivered a Veteran’s Day speech to my local high school auditorium, which I thought went well – I stood before the group of parents and teenagers in my captain’s class-A’s and told of the service of men barely teenagers themselves, and made a joke or two about the desert heat.

Afterwards, I was approached by an ancient soldier in WW2 dress greens, buttons tarnished.  He shook my hand, and without a word, reached up slowly and carefully to lift my lapel.  I know he saw one ribbon I wore there, stacked onto a dozen others that feel more like boy-scout merit badges, so modern-day generals can wear giant stacks of ribbons like some Latin American dictator.  I got my bronze star for meritorious service in combat, but I certainly didn’t do anything courageous to get it.  Like most others, I spent much of my time inside the relative safety of “the wire.”

The old staff sergeant smoothed both my lapels and patted them down, and took time to feel the polyester-wool fabric, likely different from his own wool uniform, which was faded and eaten by moths once or twice.  That’s when I saw the three small ribbons he wore.

A World War 2 victory medal, a Pacific campaign ribbon, and the bronze star – with four oak leaf clusters and a tiny metal “V,” black with age.  He had been awarded the medal 5 times - for VALOR.

“Thank you for your service,” the old man said in a gravelly voice, not much louder than a whisper.

How could a simple “You’re welcome” suffice?  He looked to be more than eighty, but he was made from molds long broken, from material tougher than anything seen in decades.

“And I thank you for yours,” was all I could reply without choking. I wasn’t worthy to shine this man’s boots.

My speech that day had been about a man named Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I.  Since then day, we have lost him to eternity.  Within a few decades, we will lose more old warriors, and the current ones, if they are lucky, will become the old.

Please take the time to share or retweet this - but more importantly, take the time to thank a soldier, new or old.

 Veterans Day 2012

They (we) thank you for your support.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

White Water Rafting in Lunahuana, Peru

Our latest episode of tourism in Peru began on a winter morning.  Winter in South America falls in July, but in Lima it’s mild, reaching 58 degrees on the coldest of nights.  Sometimes, the excessive humidity creates a bone-chilling mist, but it’s no blizzard in Chicago.  Once away from the coastal desert, the climate is much more what one would expect a few degrees south of the equator.

For this reason, we headed out of town by bus, to a place called Lunahuana.  Peru is said to have some of the best white water rafting in the world, fueled by runoff from the Andes.

When Americans think of white water rafting, usually it’s done in the Rockies of Colorado or somewhere similar, but there is a difference in scale – the State of Colorado contains a number of tall mountains, the highest of which is 14,440 ft.

The highest in Peru is 22,132.  We’re planning on climbing one in a few weeks that is just over 19,000, and it doesn’t even make the list of the top 35.  

Adjust your thoughts of white water rafting in Peru accordingly.

My wife and I had both been rafting in the Rockies, on class 3 rapids, and this was rated at class 3 and 4, so it didn’t sound like a bad trip to us.  The water level was much lower than in the rainy season.
“Do people raft when the river is that high?” we asked our guide.

“Not if they’re smart.  People die during the rainy season.”

“So people have died on this river?”

“No.  Not for a few months.”  He wasn’t kidding.

As frightening as it might sound, added to the fact that Peruvian white water rafting is basically unregulated, we felt pretty safe.  Each boat had its own guide, and several additional guides made the journey with us in kayaks, so they could maneuver quickly if one of our seven-raft group got in a bind.

They even provided us helmets, which proved useful in the first two minutes, as when we went under the first bridge, local kids tried to hit us with rocks.  Sort of a Peruvian version of "Whack-a-mole."

Our guide told me later that keeping tourists alive is better for business.  I love the free market.

We made our journey in just over two hours, which was the perfect amount of time.  It was the perfect balance of excitement – I never felt afraid, at least not much, but there weren’t many moments of boredom.  Rather than a relaxing float punctuated by fast water, it was basically one continuous set of rapids.

In the few moments of calmer water, we could see people getting on with their daily lives near the river.  At several points they have constructed elaborate cable crossing gizmos, moving people and supplies across the river in suspended buckets or platforms.  We didn’t get any good photos of this, as I was busy trying not to drown.

The amount of time was perfect as well, as Youngest was starting to have purple lips by the time we docked.  I was ready for some dry clothes, a cup of hot tea, and a nap.

The cost for four of us was about $300, but we went with a large group, so our price included the three hour trip by bus.  A number of tour operators are in business near Lunahuana, and the village alongside the river boasts the occasional small cafĂ©.  If you have an extra day in Peru and a need for adventure, this trip is just the thing.