Back in the U S and A

I’m back in Oakland.  I got back late late last night, after a very long travel day.  We weren’t able to check in online at the hotel (nevermind that the hotel computer had one of those whacked-out non-US keyboards where the backslash character is Control-Alt-Shift-Start-Caps Lock or something) and we left early to get to the airport, expecting some giant snafu involving visas or whatever.  Turns out there were absolutely zero people at the Zihua airport, and we got in quick and then had three hours to kill.  We then had a puddle-jumper to Mexico City, where we then had another four hours to kill.  Then the flight, then customs, then waiting for luggage, then the skytrain to the car, then a drive from SFO to home.  The door to door time was fifteen hours.

I took the day off for sanity purposes, which was good.  It also meant I got to drive back to my old neighborhood of South San Francisco to see the dentist, get some x-rays and see how the Mexican dental procedure held up.  He said it’s fine for now, but I’ll need a new crown in the long run.

I posted photos here although I have not sorted/tagged/captioned anything.  If you see something and want to know the story, holler.

XEmacs annoyances on the road

Every time I rely on something on a new computer and take it on the road, said computer/system throws a pain-in-the-ass problem at me.  And the difficulty of said problem is inversely proportional to the availability of either time or internet access.

Case in point: I do a lot of my writing on my home computer, which is a Macbook, but which I did not want to bring on my current trip because of size, and mostly because it’s my main computer, thus is not as easily replaceable in case of theft or damage.  Instead, I transferred over my current book project and installed a copy of XEmacs onto my netbook, which runs Windows XP and doesn’t include such niceties as a functional emacs, or pretty much anything else.

I get to my destination, and suddenly find a neat problem: the M-q command, which fills the current paragraph, does not work.  ”Filling” a paragraph, to you non-emacs types, takes a paragraph that has a bunch of uneven lines, like say a first line with two words, a second line with 100 words, and so on, and rejustifies it so it more or less fits in a standard page width, which is I think 72 characters by default.  But when I would do this in a paragraph that began with a tab, it would indent the entire paragraph one tab.

There is no clear documentation on how to fix this, or even how to explain why it happens.  I remember that ten or twelve years ago, this inexplicably started in GNU Emacs, and after a lot of head-versus-wall bashing action, I found some magic elisp to fix it.  But that was ten or twelve years ago, and more importantly, the same code did not fix XEmacs.  Was this a Win32 issue?

I don’t know, but I found another oddity: XEmacs insisted on creating a ~/.xemacs/init.el file when I picked the Options > Edit Init File menu option.  And it could not create that directory.  And if you’re in file explorer in Windows, you can’t create a file that starts with a dot.

Tip #1 and the long way around:  go to where you installed XEmacs (probably c:\Program Files\XEmacs), go into site-packages\lisp, and add your code to site-start.el

Tip #2 which didn’t dawn on me until days later: go to a dos prompt (sorry, “command shell”) and simply do a mkdir .xemacs, and it works.

Back to the initial problem.  I can’t entirely explain why this worked and why the thousand other things I tried did not work, but here’s my solution.  Add this to whatever .el file you can get to start up with XEmacs:

(setq auto-mode-alist (append '(("\\.txt$"  .  paragraph-indent-text-mode)
("\\.html$" .  html-mode)) auto-mode-alist))
(setq text-mode-hook '(lambda ()
(turn-on-font-lock)
(auto-fill-mode 1)
(setq adaptive-fill-mode nil)
(local-set-key "     " 'tab-to-tab-stop)
))

The space between the two quotes in the second-to-last line is an actual tab character and not five spaces.

Worked for me after that.  Next lesson, if I ever figure it out, is either how to get ispell to work right on Windows machines, or how to install a hacked copy of OSX on my netbook and forget all of this nonsense.

Hello from Mexico

IMG_1643I’m writing from a hotel room in Ixtapa, Mexico, where I’ve been hanging out for almost a week.  We flew down last Saturday, and fly back on Sunday.  This has been our first real vacation since our honeymoon in the Bahamas in 2007, except for long weekends, trips back to the Midwest for holidays, and the week I took off to move into our new place, and it’s been long overdue.

Mexico’s a strange place.  First, it’s strange that my didn’t-pay-attention-twenty-years-ago Spanish is somewhat functional here, and fragments of it have been coming back to me as we stumble through menus and tours.  Yes, most of the people here, especially those in the tourism-related industries (which is pretty much all of Ixtapa and Zihuantanejo) speak English.  But they also like it when you try to use Spanish, and they all seem to love trying to teach you a few words here and there en Espanol.

We’re in one of the poorest states in the country, and once you leave our hotel, you can see it.  Ixtapa’s not much more than a marina, a row of resorts, and a couple of golf courses, but Zihua is a pretty beat city.  Walking the rows of open markets and ramshackle properties, pretty much the only high tech things you will see are Coke or Corona signs.  Any feeling you may have about being the Ugly American here is quickly dissipated by the thought that at least the pesos you’re throwing out there are going to someone who needs them.

A dollar is worth 12 or almost 13 pesos.  Prices in pesos still use the dollar sign though, which first freaked me out when I picked up a room service menu and saw a can of Coke for $35.  I can’t really tell how much we’re spending or how good or bad of a deal it is, because we’re charging a lot of stuff back to the room, and there’s the whole ‘monopoly money’ factor.  Anything less than 20 pesos you get back in change will be in coins, and the paper money is very colorful with pictures of Indians and pyramids.  Also, the Banco De Mexico on the 100 peso bill is in a font that looks like the Iron Maiden logo, which is very metal.

Most days, we have been doing nothing but sitting on the beach, reading or writing.  I have crossed the 50,000 mark on this book, which means it is officially done as far as NaNoWriMo is concerned, but it’s really like 30% done, and that’s just a first draft, so don’t look for a pre-order any time soon.  We also took a long tour where we got to see a tilemaking operation in the countryside and wander through a town that had a big open market.  It was all centered around this one Catholic church that had a Jesus that looked tragic in a Faces of Death sort of way, bewildered and on his knees dragging a cross, bloodied and beaten.  Not exactly the airbrushed and toned Jesus I was used to seeing as a kid in Indiana.

We also went on a long tour yesterday on ATVs, which was a lot of fun.  It was mostly through woods and farmland, and most of the farms here grow coconuts, or raise cattle.  We also got to cruise at top speed across a wavy oceanfront.  ATVs are fun as hell, and it makes me want to buy a couple and tear up my land in Colorado to put in some kind of dirt obstacle course.

And the bad news.  First, there was an earthquake here last Sunday.  There were actually three, a 3.7, a 4.6, and a 4.2; I think we only felt the middle one.  It wasn’t much, a very quick shake that we thought was just someone next door or maybe below us, and we didn’t hear confirmation of it until the next day.

Second, we got sick.  We were both careful about what we ate and drank, and they purify everything here at the hotel, but something got us.  It was a horrible, flu-like thing where I was feverish and totally weak for about 24 hours, and then it went away.  So, Montezuma had his revenge, but a day later, I was for the most part better.

And also, on last Sunday, I was eating a piece of cake, and one of my crowns fell out.  It was my lower rear one, and it and the tooth appeared to have no damage, but there was some sensitivity, and immediately went ballistic.  ”Mexican” and “Dentist” go together like “Turkish” and “Prison”.  I got an appointment the next morning with a dentist in Zihua who had an office about as clean and friendly as my last dentist in Astoria (which isn’t saying much, but it wasn’t like the dental scene in that Tom Hanks castaway movie.)  He shot me up with novacaine, cleaned everything, glued the crown back on, told me in broken English that I needed to get it redone as soon as possible (going back next week, in the US…) and then charged me roughly  $40.  No paperwork, no insurance hassles, no waivers to sign, nothing.  It was truly a “you are not in the US anymore” moment.

So here I am, the temperature double what it is back home, no rain or gloom.  No turkey yesterday, and the only football on the tube was the no-hands variety with the round ball.  Lots of pictures to upload when I get back on a real internet connection, so stay tuned.

A final coda to the season

Oh yeah, I have not updated since the end of baseball season.  People keep commenting about the Yankees buying the World Series, because it’s great to hate the Yankees.  My general opinion on that is, “eh.”  It’s no secret teams with high payrolls have more success, except the Mets have the second-highest payroll and 2009 didn’t work out so well for them (24th place in win/loss); the Cubs threw down about $135 big, third in payroll size, and finished like 7th in a 5-team division.  (OK, it was 16th of 30) The Marlins were dead last in payroll and almost won a wildcard; the Mariners shed almost $20 million, but they still spent more money than the Phillies did to win the World Series in 2008.  Houston is in the top ten money served, but finished 24th.  And my beloved Rockies just barely made the top twenty in the salary department, but were sixth place overall. So more payroll means more success, except when it doesn’t.

I’m pretty neutral about the whole Yankees hate thing, except for the fact that I’m a fan of whoever is playing the Red Sox, and that makes me somewhat happy they were able to win.  But I only passively watched the games.  It seems like it was months ago that the Rockies lost, and I’m starting to get the itch, wishing I was back at Coors Field with AM radio in ear, and a bag of Cracker Jacks in my lap.  I think this will be a tough year, hot stove-wise, since a lot of my favorites from the 2007 series may be going elsewhere.  (Hawpe, Atkins, Torrealba) and some of the big weapons of this year will also wander elsewhere (Beimel, Giambi, Betancourt).  Hopefully, the owners will lock down some good names for 2010.  And hopefully, I’ll get at least one weekend at altitude to see a few games.

Until then – winter ball?  I don’t think the iPhone has an app for that…

Marathon

It’s been a while.  I’ve been busy working on this NaNoWriMo book writing marathon.  It’s day 15, and I should be at 25,000 words, and I’m just shy of 32,000 words, which is good news.  The bad news is I took yesterday off, I barely picked at things today after sleeping in, and I go on vacation next week.  I am also slowly running out of steam, and I’m not terribly excited about the project anymore.  Part of this is due to two artificial constraints I have added.  One is that I have been limiting myself to only the first third of the book, because this is the weakest third, and normally, I’d jump straight into the final third, and totally screw everything up.  I need the base writing done in the first third, so that’s where I’m focusing.  The other problem is that I’ve been avoiding going back to re-edit or revise the old stuff I’ve already written, but I know it needs lots of work.  It’s all filled with passive verbs, simple telling versus showing, and not a lot of good storytelling.  I’ll get to that eventually – right now the only goal is 50,000 by the end of the month.

In less than a week, I will be in sunny Mexico.  I have done zero preparation for the trip, aside from getting a Frommer’s book (or maybe it’s Lonely Planet, I forget.)  It will be a nice change from the weather here, which has been dipping into the 40s some mornings.  The cats have taken to sleeping on top of our cable box/DVR, so I’m also expecting a near future of no TV unless I can find a way to block that off.

I’ve wasted the morning googling old crap about malls.  One of the main problems with this book is it’s much harder to research late 80s stuff from Elkhart on the internet.  I thought researching Summer Rain was bad, but try finding anything about Scottsdale Mall on the web.  There’s one page on deadmalls, and there’s what I posted, and that’s about it.  I don’t want to have to start pulling crap from the Elkhart library to research this, because it’s not a research project – it’s a friggin’ novel.  The same goes for music, although I can actually find Indestroy’s album on iTunes.

All of this reading about malls has me thinking about going to a mall, but I don’t even know where one is around here.  I know where the closest strip of Best Buy/Baby Gap/Home Depot is, and we have this big outdoor mall, but I want to walk the corridors of a half-dead, remodeled last in 1978, dried-out water feature covered in fake cotton snow mall.  Meanwhile, I get distracted by posts like this great time capsule of my past: a post about Factoria Mall, outside of where I used to work in Seattle.  That place was a dump, but my first year of work was in an office right next to that place, and it became one of those default places I’d always end up, especially when I needed something from Target.  Scary stuff.

Must go write…

NaNoWriMo, day one

So there’s this thing called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.  It’s a contest of sorts, where writers have one month to write a 50,000 word novel.  There are no prizes or judges, and there’s no real anything except motivation to throw together a book as fast as possible.  This isn’t anything new; I tried to do this back in 2002, but between a trip to Vegas at the start, a horrible case of the flu, and a story line that was largely unsustainable, I dropped out pretty fast.  This time, I will be in Mexico for a week of the time, and I’ve got a more involved job, plus I’m also married now, so I don’t have as much time as when I was single with no friends in New York, and coasting in a job where I could spend long periods of time chipping away at an outline.

I have been outlining a book for a few weeks ago; it’s actually an idea I’ve knocked around for years, and I have parts of a rough draft that weighs in at about 60,000 words.  The book, structurally, threatens to weigh in at close to the word count of Summer Rain, or about 180,000-200,000 words.  The book is somewhat biographical, and takes place in high school.  I have often said I don’t want to dip back into this style of writing, and there are some obvious issues with doing this.  But I feel like I need to get this out of my system and behind me, and the only way to do that is to actually write and finish the damn book and put it behind me.  Maybe nobody will ever read it, but I need to get it done and on the shelf.

My biggest problem is that twenty years is a long time ago, and my memory isn’t what it used to be.  When I was writing Summer Rain, that period was only a few years behind me.  I also had a decent paper trail, including old emails, diaries, checkbooks, bank statements, letters, and even a copy of my bursar’s record, with the prices of every thin dime the university shook out of me back in 1992.  I have moved eight times since I started Summer Rain.  Since I graduated high school, I have moved fifteen times.  Each time, a little bit more falls off the truck or into the recycler, and I have almost no record of anything anymore.  I need to be a lot more loose with dates and details this time around.

There’s also the issue with writing about other people.  I always run into the problem that I write some story about someone from 1988, and the story is about love lost or lessons learned, and I get an email that says “WHAT THE FUCK DUDE MY CAR DIDNT HAVE 14 INCH RIMS IT HAD 15 INCH RIMS”.  Writing about space aliens from mars doesn’t generate this kind of thing, and it’s a real crapshoot, because I can obsess over these tiny details, or I can just omit so-and-so from the story entirely, or make up some new character, or whatever else.  But knowing that someone will read the story eventually and get on your case because maybe you painted them in a bad light is always unnerving.  And the work of combining and amalgamating and fictionalizing characters is always that – work.

So I’ve been re-reading John Sheppard’s Small Town Punk (the original version, not the Reader’s Digest version) and that’s got me geared up.  I’ve also been doing a lot of outlining using OmniOutliner on the Mac, which is a pretty useful program for this sort of thing.  I usually have really terse outlines, and then I write for 30 or 40,000 words, and then I start forgetting what the outline is or what I covered, and I have to stop and re-read and re-outline everything, which is a huge waste of time.  I hope that I can stick to this outline and keep things rolling.

Today was day one, and my wordcount was just over 3000.  I think you need something like 1667 words a day to hit the magic 50K, so I’m slightly ahead.  I hope I can work out some more slack and keep going.  I’m also somewhat forcing myself to write very linear, starting at chapter 1 and going forward, instead of hopping around.

Anyway, that’s what’s keeping me busy – if I vanish for a bit, you know why.