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Oct 14 17

Deserving…

by Richard

Recently left in a dusty vacuum when Game of Thrones Season Six ended, I found I needed a conflict fix. Of course, I could have simply gorged on TV news, but something inside me needs to absorb conflict that can be settled. Ended favorable to someone. Anyone.

So I turned to binge watching the four seasons of a SciFi series on Netflix: The 100. Originally written as a YA series by Brooklyn author Kass Morgan, it’s a complicated, character-driven unfolding of deadly conflicts. One right after the other. I’ve been riveted both by the screen portrayals as by the series’ conceptual material. It asks more questions than it answers, but always comes around to one. Do we deserve to survive?

A long time ago, some dust left over from an explosion in space, congealed and became a place with water, air and life. Life miraculously expanded and evolved many diverse forms. Some moved around, others didn’t, but they found ways to exploit the places they were and thrive. Some of them seemed to like the whole, “moving on” activity. They spread out over the entire world.

They may have been one clan or a handful of clans when they began, but now, there are many diverse groups. A few of the things most of them have in common are cruelty to each other, fear of others and total disregard and lack of respect for the Natural world they live in coupled with an inability to preserve the balance for the future generations.

Another is the complete inability to learn from the past and turn away from ideas that have been bad decisions with terrible, deadly consequences. We survive by our tenacity, not so much our knowledge and understanding. We applaud that tenacity in every activity we engage in, even when the results threaten our survival. Seems counter-intuitive, but there it is. Again, and again.

I’m reminded of a great Clint Eastwood line from his western film, Unforgiven. “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.”

Of course, it’s perfectly applicable to our larger, human situation. As self-aware living things, we question our existence. We argue that there must be a reason for things to have happened. Things that occur that benefit us or damage us alike, must have been deserved. Some of us are revered for our thinking around these questions. Their answers and words are often compiled and used to create rules for behavior. But we don’t trust those other folks… the ones over there, do we? If they don’t follow our rules, then they don’t deserve to survive. In the words of a great Long Islander, Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”

Which brings Kass Morgan’s great question to mind. Do we deserve to survive? Given our behavior and our disregard for other living things, even our own kind? I’m hard-pressed to say I can decide. That question assumes that there is a moral order to the universe. Something or someone that sets the balance and judges the results. In the case that is true, I’d tend to see the demise of humans as a boon to the rest of the planet; but if it’s not, then life will have its way. It’s tenacious, and will find ways around every obstacle. Karma is another name for cause and effect, an observed truth of the physical universe. Every action has results. Whether the end justifies the means, matters little. We seem to have lost even our somewhat limited vision. We’ll stumble around in the darkness for a while longer… and Season Five is just around the corner.

Sep 11 17

Sixteen years…

by Richard

Sixteen years. Time enough for reflection. Another crystalline September morning here on Long Island. To our South, a hurricane is roaring up Florida; but here, it’s still and beautiful. Exactly the way I remember that morning, all those years ago.

A few days ago, the local news remarked upon the passing of yet another FDNY firefighter before his time. He’d worked for weeks on the recovery effort in the “hole”, like so many others. Sadly, he contracted cancer from the toxic dust-laden air. The FDNY loss count today stands at 343 plus 159 since, of related diseases and complications. Here, it doesn’t fade into an historic event, but remains personal.

Such an incredibly effective evil. An Egyptian architecture student develops a psychotic obsession. He frames it in religious intolerance and in that way, attracts followers and financing. Time passes, and on a crisp September morning like this one, the world changes forever. Forever less than it had been, somehow. Reduced to fear and hatred. Have we learned from that terrible moment? Not very much. We feel it deeply and bury it when we can, but it will always remain. Sixteen years later, can I compare my feelings this morning to those following the terrifying news? Yes. I feel less hope now.

Jul 28 17

Packrat: A New Mexico Story

by Richard

There… just down the slope a little. A corner of turquoise cloth stuck out of the ground where a packrat had left it. Decoration for his back door. I slid down over the crispy, dry juniper needles and shriveled berries from last season. Looking around carefully for snakes, I grabbed the corner and gave it a sharp tug. The whole damn hat popped out of the burrow and landed at my feet.

It had been maybe two years since that hat disappeared. I didn’t remember losing it; I just noticed one day I couldn’t find it. The packrat found it. Finders, keepers. It wasn’t even chewed up much. The bill was raggedy, but only a little bit of the crown had been removed, probably to decorate something deep underground. I picked it up, turned it around, then tossed it back down. He could keep it. He’d peed on it.

It was a big nest, with a midden pile that spread over a dozen feet in each direction. Cut branches, pieces of Styrofoam cups, tatters of paper, cardboard, dried juniper berries and pieces of ribbon. I knew it was just the tip of the iceberg, though. Most of the horde was safely underground. He’d been a very busy rat.

Smelling the telltale mustiness of rodent droppings and urine, I quickly climbed back up the slope. People got really sick from breathing packrat urine. A couple of Navajos had died the year before. The spokesperson from the Nation said they might have been digging Packrat nests to get the Pinon nuts the rats horded. Made me kind of wonder about buying a sack of PInon from the roadside guys.

I looked over the midden pile, the gaping holes of several entrances, just visible below the lip of the slope. It really wasn’t much of an issue for the house. It lay under a huge, drooping juniper about twenty feet from the front wall. I could probably poison ‘em, but why bother. There were always new ones to replace dead ones anyway. Poisoned rats could also poison crows or ravens, even coyotes if they were too hungry to care if the lunch was moving first. The Packrats could have this slope. We didn’t need it.

####

“Jim? You  seen my car keys?”

“Nope. Take mine… where’d you leave ‘em?”

My wife’s face told me she didn’t appreciate the humor. “Funny. Would you take a look when you’re finished with that? They couldn’t have gotten far.” She bent over and gave me a quick kiss on her way out the door.

“Be careful out there!” I called after her. It was getting to the point where we felt really relaxed and safe at home. Travel, even out to the local grocery store, implied a certain amount of risk. No matter where you happened to be, chances were good that there was a drunk… or a complete idiot bearing down on you. You had to keep your wits on high alert as the evening news attested. The carnage on the road was almost gothic horrorshow in its terrible proportions. Whenever one of us went out alone, the other one worried.

My bookkeeping skills were pretty shaky and today’s attempt at cleaning things up wasn’t getting anywhere. I got up with the idea to look around for my wife’s keys. I checked all the usual hidey-holes and corners where things got shoved by mistake, but they remained gone. Maybe, I thought, she dropped them in the garage.

That took an hour, moving the bags of yard waste and cardboard boxes left over from moving in just eight years earlier, produced no results. I did find a screwdriver I thought I lost inside the truck’s engine well, beneath the distributor, a month earlier.  OK, a small victory over the forces of fate.

I decided to look around outside, where she parked the truck last night. Our driveway was gravel and the garage had a wide apron, so if she’d dropped them, they’d be pretty easy to spot. After I walked back and forth a few times, I did the perimeter, checking under every snakeweed and chamisa. An occasional prickly pear cactus poked up along the edge of the drive, where the edging stones held runoff water. No luck.

Something shiny caught my eye as I headed back to the door. I knelt down and found a piece of a broken Christmas ball partially buried under a flat rock. The screwdriver in my back pocket began digging into my butt, so I stood up. I turned the piece of thin, curved glass over, wondering where that had come from. We’d never decorated a Christmas Tree with glass balls since we moved in.

I guessed it must have been left over from the previous owner. He’d been in a big hurry to sell, and get out. It was probably from his junk. We had swept up a big pile of odd junk left all over the house, under cabinets, in closets. Among the stuff waiting for the dustpan had been two spent nine millimeter handgun shell casings. Strange things to leave on the floor.

But, no keys. I headed back in to wait for Marty to get home so I could interrogate her about the keys. Last place you knew you had them, what you did next… typical stuff. I was sure we’d find them, though. We always did.

####

Two weeks later, they hadn’t turned up, but I had a real issue to deal with. One morning I heard Marty scream from the master bath. I ran into the bedroom, hoping she hadn’t taken a header in the shower.

She opened the door, clutching her robe around her and shaking her head.

“What was that? You OK?”

“I’m fine, but take a look in the shower.  It’s disgusting.”

“Oh God.” Last time the waste system backed up, I was two days digging up to my neck in the clay and rock mix that was the standard in this part of New Mexico. The only thing that got through it was a six-foot iron breaker bar and a huge mattock. My back took weeks to mend, and here we were again.

While reaching for possible alternatives that might save my back, I remembered the issue last time had been roots. Maybe that’s all it was this time. Two days later, after the Roto-Rooter guy had reported an obstruction in the mainline out to the pool, I was again slinging dirt out of a trench designed to cut across the mainline, about four feet down and hopefully uncover the issue. I’d already lost a couple of days of work, and the cost of the inconclusive roto-rooter visit put me in a pretty foul mood without the digging.

The trench ran from a point I guessed would clear the pipe, across the driveway and over near to the big juniper.  Four feet deep, I was almost there, I figured. So my muttering and slinging went on until about four in the afternoon, when I banged up against the white PVC pipe. OK. Time to rest. I climbed out of the hole and stumbled, losing my footing. I’d stepped into another packrat tunnel or something. The ground had given way under my feet. I stood and carefully used the shovel to excavate the tunnel. It ran towards the drain line, so I began to clear it out. I figured it would be easier digging anyway. My break could wait.

The dirt collapsed with soft thumps all along the tunnel as I prodded with the shovel. The intersection point with the pipe was just ahead. I also noticed some wetness, when I cleared a bit of the dirt out of the collapsed burrow. A twisting line of juniper roots also followed the bottom of the trench, protruding from the mud. OK. That was probably it. Three more shovel loads, and I exposed a coupling in the pipe that was cracked. As I cleared it away, I saw the juniper roots had entered the cracks. It might have been cracked when he had a load of heavy flagstone delivered. A pallet had fallen off the back of the truck and it probably did the initial damage. The packrats had obviously helped, providing a clear pathway to the moisture seeping out of the pipe for the roots to follow. It had only been six months or so. I guessed Juniper roots could grow fast when they wanted to.

I sunk the shovel in, beneath the coupling, intending to clear a work hole to re-join the pipe after pulling off the old coupling and removing the roots in the line. I was glad I had heavy rubber gloves. The dirt collapsed around the shovel blade and fell away into an existing space beneath the pipe. Another shovel full, and I had the space clear, but there was something metallic gleaming in the mud. Of course. I knew what it would be as I reached over to pick it up. Caked with mud and filth, but here were my wife’s keys.

# # # #

For more stories in a New Mexico setting, try Back To Santa Fe by WT Durand , available online or at your bookseller

Saille Tales Books new author

Jul 26 17

Vintage Music, Old Fingers…

by Richard

An old guy’s ear worms…

By 1968, the guitar lessons started when I was thirteen had begun to take hold, but the teacher had been left behind. My family moved a lot. I’d been through two or three department store guitars by then and could finally carry an entire tune. The mid-1060s folk revival had gotten me completely hooked. A big part of it was that I could play the chords called for in those songs… and sing ‘em, too. In those days, songs by now relatively forgotten songwriters like Fred Neil and John Stewart got radio airplay. I heard Buffy Sainte-Marie and Richard & Mimi Farina (Joan Baez’ younger sister) fairly regularly along with Dylan, Phil Ochs, and even Eric Andersen. Those songs swirled inside my brain then… and many of them still do. The music that moves us when we are coming of age, seems to persist as background scores to the events of our lives.

The next year found us in Vancouver, Washington where pursuing live music became one of my main pursuits. My Senior Year of High School, a few of us approached a local church about the possibility of holding a weekly folk music concert series in their basement. A fairly liberal-minded congregation, they surprised us by saying “Yes.” Since they also had a couple of commercial-sized urn coffee makers, Equinox Coffee House was born. The tradition of featuring local and regional musicians doing folk covers and a few of their own songs became a passion, even if organizational skills were not my strong suit. Live performances of the great songs I’d learned from the radio or off a vinyl record had so much more “presence” and “style”. To this day, there are some covers of songs, such as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Code-ine” and Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song” that remain still powerful in my memory. Preferable even, to the artists’ own recorded versions, even if the performer I remember is no longer heard of.

Those traveling troubadours that plied the folk circuit on the West Coast, spoke in reverential tones of the “scene” in Greenwich Village and Boston. We’d all gather ‘round after a set to talk about how each song was learned. In some case, they were learned directly from the songwriter. One of my very favorites of these was a folksinger named Jon Adams, from the Fresno, California area who made it up to Washington or Portland Oregon, (across the river) once or twice a year. He covered several songs by Richard & Mimi Farnina, Leonard Cohen and a somewhat obscure songwriter from Boston named Mark Spoelstra, among others. Mr. Adams remains my greatest inspiration towards improving my guitar picking to this day. All these years later, I am still trying to figure out his incredible version of Stag-o-Lee. Almost there.

The following year, I relocated back to Eugene Oregon, for college, leaving The Equinox to get along without me, a crisp, fresh draft card in my hand. I understand The Equinox did continue Friday nights for a few years, but by then my parents had moved again and I had little contact with my old friends in Vancouver. I had gotten more serious about my guitar picking by then and had played an open mic or two after buying a mid-level acoustic guitar with money earned on a variety of jobs. These jobs, including working a cannery, a health food store and planting trees for Weyerhauser Lumber, provided me enough to pay for a basement room near school, a few beers and a really playable Japanese import Aria guitar.  The year after, I left school to engage in music and antiwar protest full-time. I made the mistake of loaning my guitar to a new friend I didn’t know too well, and it hit the road with him, never to return. I still occasionally wonder how things might have turned out had I kept that instrument, but the road called my name.

The best gift I ever got!

I finally made it to Greenwich Village and Boston, eventually, but the “scene” spoken of had dwindled and few of the players of yore still performed, except Dave VanRonk who still held “court” on occasion.  I also got another guitar once I ‘d met my wife and settled down on Long Island. Oddly enough, I became an Ad Man Art Director. Didn’t see that coming at all. There are still songs in my head, circling every day, like Eric Andersen’s “Close the Door Lightly When You Go” that I first heard covered by a local player. Lots of Gordon Lightfoot in the mix, too. These have become what would be the core of my repertoire, IF I played publicly. My wife has to tolerate my ceaseless practice, even if it has no real point beyond my own pleasure. As the years have unfolded, almost everything has changed, but I learned to embrace change when I was a little kid; besides, looking back, it’s all been for the best. I have a family I love, an amazing set of cats, a home in the woods plus, I still have all those songs, too. My vintage fingers still work.

I’ll post videos and music from some of those great songwriters and performers from the mid-60s and early 70s, now mostly forgotten, each Wednesday, on Facebook. You may enjoy rekindling your own memories, or learning some new tunes!

Jul 14 17

A Bumpy Ride: how language changes…

by Richard Sutton

This morning, my wife told me that she’d come across another of the latest, “Johnny-come-lately” online retailers naming today’s sale, “Black Friday”. Well, it is Friday. At least that connects, and maybe they want to associate today’s event with the slavering attention paid the American November event by bargain hungry shoppers. But somehow, I get the impression that the marketing people that came up with today’s event name, don’t have a clue about the real Black Friday, and that made me think for a moment about how language changes over time, and not always for the best reasons.

First, as a long-time owner of a family retail business, I know the story of Black Friday all too well. The name was not originally chosen to name the day after Thanksgiving’s sales events. It was an accounting reference. Back in the day of double column, hand written accounting records, the income side of the equation was written in black ink and the liability/debt side in red. For most department store retailers – those were the only large-scale retail locations – and most specialty retailers, it took until the last week of November before sales had finally made up enough to offset the red column. In the language of the day, you were “In the Black”, when the accounting for the year moved to favor the black side of the records. Black Friday was an inside joke until it was drawn out to name a sales event designed to, hopefully, put the retailer into the black after having spent a stressful year in the red.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect the expert marketeers that grew up during the eighties and nineties with constant encouragement and applause for the tiniest chore completed, to understand the old reference. Or maybe I should cut the Millennials some slack and just say that they decided to appropriate a phrase for their own product marketing, without really considering the full impression across the marketplace. But this is the kind of thing repeated by the thousands every day, that illustrates just how fluid language really is. Since most analytical thinking makes use of language, it too is influenced by many of these revisions in meaning. Today’s concepts often bear little resemblance to yesterday’s ideas to reach the same destination.

Whether it is simply the need to express things faster; or if it really is that the cultural and technological references of the recent past no longer matter, a large portion of each community is side-stepped by the evolving language. If language can be compared to a highway carrying rush-hour traffic, it’s good to remember that many of the folks on the road are finding the ride full of potholes. Now is this an intelligent approach to marketing, or even conversation? Well, chances are if it doesn’t make sense to me, or connect with my own experience, then it doesn’t really matter to me. And equally important, I suppose I don’t really matter to those who are promoting the message. Or telling the story.

Writers, take note. Don’t sabotage your own work by neglecting to speak and understand the language of your target readers. A single poorly chosen cultural reference or anachronistic use of phrasing that does not exist for them and you lose the close connection they might have had with your words. One more thing. Age does matter. Right along with regional culture, time does put us in different slots based upon shared experiences growing up. Neglecting to acknowledge that, you lose one more way to strengthen your story’s impact. While we can’t all be completely fluent in all stages of the life of our mother tongue; we can at least try to be aware of the pressures a language must face over its life, and remain true to which ever version was spoken in the setting we weave our tales around.

Mar 18 17

Keeping it real enough…

by Richard Sutton

Saturday, March 18, 2017 9:41 AM

I have to smile when I hear fiction described as “made up stuff”. I realize some readers feel that their time is too valuable to indulge in someone’s “what if” stories. For them, there are libraries full to bursting with all kinds of non-fiction to learn from and absorb. I read quite a bit of non-fiction myself, but I write fiction. I write fiction because I can express reality in ways that can be as real if not “realer” than the facts on the ground. That may seem surprising to many, but over the years I’ve been a reader, it’s always the most identifiable, honest human situations and reactions that draw me into a fictional story. You know those books. They are the ones with characters you feel like you’ve known for years. Stories that you can follow because possibly you’ve been down the same path yourself. Even if the path lies in galaxies far, far away… or deep in unknown realms beneath the surface of the sea, or in times so ancient, there is barely any record of mankind’s passing through. In those cases, the stories can be told in such a way that they are populated with reality in the form of knowable humanity. Even if they take unknown or animal forms, the emotions connect us inside. It takes a lot of practice to perfect a writing craft to the point where a reader can immerse themselves in the words you sprinkle about, seemingly with abandon.

In my own work, I try to keep every story real enough to accomplish that. I remember one of my books needed twelve rewrites to get there, and I had to laugh when an early reader found a horse who turned into a donkey three chapters later. Not magically. Which brings up the entire issue of outside influences and pressures. These things are real in a completely different way. Since November, despite having a long-time project crying out for an ending as well as two series needing additional stories, reality has intruded. The daily dose of ever-worsening news has gotten into a space in my head normally reserved for story evolution and creative idea generation. It’s clinging to the walls in a particularly nasty way that begs a general clean up. Of course, as a fiction writer, I realize that even here is a new reality that needs to be stored and re-used when needed, but sometimes this kind of intrusion can shut down the machine for a while. I guess I’ve read volumes from writers dissecting their own version of writer’s block; and while their experiences dealing with it can be encouraging, when push comes to shove, you have to figure it out for yourself.

One of the feelings that accompany a period of low creativity, is a nagging guilt. I hear a little voice telling me, “well, what kind of professional writer are you anyway, if you don’t write every day and unfold your stories when they need to be unfolded?” I get it. If writing fiction were just a hobby to be run out when it felt like fun, I suppose everyone would give it a shot. Instead, it’s more like a capricious friend who shows up unannounced when they want to party. Then they turn into a stern taskmaster watching the clock. In the mean time, I try to find places where I can stash my storylines and ideas until I can begin to fashion them into something a reader can use. Places in my head, behind the daily stuff I need ready access to, where they will remain safe from too much reality. Places where they can be real enough to get it done, eventually. In that spirit, I’m going to make a pledge to myself to limit my intake of the droning sound of impending disaster the media is serving up. It’s an important job they do; but while I want to keep my feet firmly on the ground, I also need to be able to strap on my wings from time to time. I’m not very good at multi-tasking.

Feb 11 17

Ancient Origins – Ancient Diversity…

by Richard Sutton

From childhood, I’ve wondered a lot about how diverse the ancient world must have been. Once I understood, from reading history books in school and the few really engaged teachers I was lucky enough to have, that history is written by the conquerors; I began to mentally assemble alternatives to the Roman-Centric precedents to our civilization. Laughably, not the regular sort of thing for a twelve-year old to think about frequently; but then, I was also a “cereal box reader” and non-stop tinkerer, so attempting to figure out the past just made some kind of sense, I guess. At least to me.

In the interim, with more education and actual research, I realized my half-baked childhood theories weren’t that far off from the truth of things or at least the current thinking. The Roman World was one of flaring resentments, widespread warfare and reprisal. The often-touted, Pax Romana was only secure and peaceful for some lucky Romans. Amid the chaos of military occupation and crushing cultural burdens as Rome’s rule settled upon mostly unwilling shoulders, there are stories of almost miraculous preservation of the older cultures and languages despite the yoke of occupation. An amazing resourcefulness was displayed as the older cultures resisted in any ways they could, then rebounded. The sudden resurgence of Clan Rules and unchecked xenophobia in the outlying regions once Rome’s heavy hand was even partially lifted, led directly to what we now call the Dark Ages. It’s a natural succession we see today in many conflicts worldwide. In truth, however, I can imagine it was plenty dark for many cultures long before the Dark Ages. Their survival, even in fragments seems miraculous.

The knowledge compounded over millennia by these cultures has had some revealing light shed upon it over the years. In some cases, a better understanding has grown through the work of committed archaeologists and linguists. Recently, the new-ish science of genetics has provided better understandings of ancient bloodlines and the migrations of the earliest of our cousins and direct forebears. But entire worlds of ancient secular knowledge and culture remain obscure, even completely unknown.

Four of these subjects particularly attracted my young mind and have persisted to the present. They are, the Library at Alexandria, storehouse of vast amounts of ancient learning and knowledge going back to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt around 330 BCE (and quite possibly even further than that); the ancient “sinking” of a large, highly advanced civilization somewhere to the West of Gibraltar and referred to by Roman historians as “Atlantis”; The still largely unknown “Sea People”, including Danites (also referred to as the Danaan and the Shardana), Pelasgians and Phoenicians who possibly invented written language, developed navigation and wide-ranging trade routes as well as introducing metallurgy; and finally, the European Celtic tradition which still endures despite Rome’s strenuous efforts to eradicate it.

Researching remnant cultures can be very time-consuming as there is no clear arc of data to follow. Each bit is a new discovery and requires puzzling out how it fits or adjusting the framework to admit it. The recorded histories of these four subjects only touch upon dim fragments of truth left from the conquests of the Hellenes and later Rome and the Ascendant Church. The remaining compilations accepted now as known facts are very few and mostly serve to excite speculation. Almost all of the individual, secular knowledge of ancient cultures in Europe, The Middle-East and Northern Africa has been lost to the torch or to revisionists. Scattered, monumental art and architecture remain along with some scraps of engineering mathematics, poems, prayers and the occasional commercial document; but ascendant, conquering cultures among our species, seem to always find the need to cast the conquered as inferior in as many ways as possible. Part of this process involves eliminating reference to, or ridiculing any previous knowledge which might disagree with their own. If they can’t simply rewrite it as their own invention.  Another common practice still used in today’s world, is to build over the remains of older cultures, erasing memories in the process.

In my mind, the only thing left to do, beyond lots and lots of digging and site documentation, is to write informed speculative historic fiction. In this way, we can use available research to try and reveal some of the enormous possibilities of what might have been. Storytelling is a deep part of what makes us human. Many unseen, older influences still work their magic in our world and can be found in quirks of language, folk-tales, superstitions, traditional medicines and many other examples that remain active today. Since there is often little left to create a direct line of facts accurately describing these ancient ancestors and details of their practices, it’s left to writers to describe them. In my own work, I hope that readers might find a passage that will fire a spark in them.  Maybe even open their eyes and hearts to remain on the lookout for anything which reveals a glimmer of truth about how we got to be who we are and how wonderfully diverse our family has always been. In that spirit, I’ve begun my new series, The Gift. I hope it will find readers that enjoy wondering as well as discovery.

# # # #

 

Jan 2 17

eFiction Magazine features new writers’ work… mine and many others…

by Richard

Publisher Doug Lance’s popular eFiction Magazine has grown into a range of magazines, each featuring a different genre of short stories, etc. One of my own early stories, Gypsies, I was recently reminded, is still available in the September 2011 issue of the original magazine. If you haven’t seen eFiction, and would like to read this odd story of childhood disaffection, here’s the link: http://www.fictionmagazines.com/shop/efiction-issues/efiction-september-2011/

Doug has been very instrumental in getting quite a few writing careers off the ground, introducing their voices to the growing world of readers of eBooks and magazines. If discovering a new, unusual writing voice is something that appeals, visit eFiction today and see if it provides a few tasty morsels. My bet is that it will, and then some!

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Dec 29 16

Working With Image Formats

by Richard

As Independent Authors, we often have to work directly with our marketing and communications. Much of that involves using digital images, such as book covers. in the interest of helping to clarify what can be a bit confusing to someone not schooled in digital graphics, here are a few notes on image file formats and what they mean for your book cover and online marketing graphics.

Digital images, or bitmaps as they are known, have had a long interesting history. The internet has been a huge influence on how they are formatted. Back in the day of Pac-Man and Compuserve, bitmapped images were severely limited in color fidelity and even resolution by the low bandwidth of the internet as it was then. Most users had a dial-up connection which at best, could handle 56K bits per second. Most of the time it ran at about half of that. Compuserve invented the GIF format as a break-out way to transmit color images in an 8-bit per pixel color model that revealed color into 256 different steps of hue. It was also a faster way of sending an image through a telephone line.

Needless to say, it was pretty rudimentary, but then so were the graphics processors in those days.  My first PC was a 286 IBM clone that could handle some color on a black-screen with scrolling colored type. Graphics were jagged and all flat color sections. No photographic images except greyscale at that time. Full color came later, along with the JPEG format, in 1992 after a long conference of the Joint Photographic Experts Group. It was designed to make color photographic material possible to transmit. Although it used almost full-spectrum color modeling, in order to keep the bandwidth needed to transmit the images, they were compressed by algorithm and slightly blurred. Some detail is generally lost in the compression as is a degree of nuanced color fidelity. Much later, jpeg formats were opened up to include less compression and greater color fidelity.

Along with later systems, including Apple’s Macintosh, came full spectrum images that were not compressed at all. Lossless images. These were called TIFF images and although they took up a great deal more room on a hard drive, were much closer to true color and sharp resolution. It can be confusing trying to keep all the formats straight, but to make it simple, think of TIFF (Also PNG and a few other high-rez formats) as the apex of both color fidelity and sharpness, then comes JPEG in downward-varying degrees of compression and finally, GIF images at the bottom.

Some uses dictate the format preferred. For ebook covers and online catalogs, jpegs are usually chosen. For do-it-yourselfers, I recommend that if your image manipulation software allows, create your jpeg images with no compression at the highest quality settings. They’ll be slightly larger files than the compressed versions, but they will look much better on the screen. I also recommend 96dpi resolution for screen images over the standard 72 dpi. The higher resolution adds a lot of depth and better type contrast. In the case of some service agencies, such as Amazon KDP, you can actually upload your covers in uncompressed TIFF format. This is my own preferred format for online images if they are accepted. From the image they receive, they will re-sample and model your supplied image downwards for size and resolution, but at least they’ll be starting with the best, most faithful version of your image.

The color model (based on the primary components of spectrum that dictate the appearance of the spectrum chosen) most frequently used for both JPEGs and TIFFs is 24-bit RGB (designed for transmitted color, such as from a monitor) and CMYK (designed for reflected color as from a printed page) which should be kept to their respective applications. I’ve been known to use a 32-bit CMYK image, which is a much larger file that a 24-bit JPEG to achieve the contrast and color I want, then converting it downwards to a JPEG and adjusting for brightness to bring it close to the original appearance. It’s a step you really don’t need to take. I just like to tweak things in all kinds of ways. But using the right amount of compressions for the application’s best color model – RGB or CMYK – Monitor or print – you’ll get the best results. The most recent iteration of the JPEG model is the JPG2000 (.jp2 file suffix) which accepts any bit depth for improved scaleability, but outside of professional graphics circles is still not readily accepted. Another format is the PNG format which works best if an image is dominated by a single color or flat colors such as in charts, logos, etc.

One last tip, if you want to use Unsharp Masking (or another name for sharpening, etc.) to make your titling pop a bit more, use it sparingly (lesser percentages) to reduce haloing and jaggies, and then only after all other procedures, such as contrast adjustment, color tweaking and resampling have been accomplished. Jus’ sayin’.

I hope that any Apple users reading this will broaden this post by adding any comments unique to their platform. In addition, feel free to ask questions. If I can answer them I will, or refer them to someone who can.

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Dec 15 16

A Promise of Hope…

by Richard

Snow came in, unexpectedly this morning, for about an hour as the temperatures plunged. Weather wise, it’s been a relatively comfortable year for us… but only weather-wise. The infirmities of aging have caught us and brought us forced reflection. We can prioritize easier now than we used to be able to, when the world beckoned and anything seemed possible. Recent events here and abroad have made it clear that possibilities for most humans have shrunk down substantially, and while luck seems to drawn thin at times, it’s still a ready player.

The image is an Ojibway Dreamcatcher hanging in my window while the snow falls outside. It’s a simple web spread over a bent willow twig hoop with some natural decorations added. It reminds me that hope is the most common of human traits. Our species may sometimes follow paths that later prove to be a bad decision; but even once the darkness begins to fall, we hope for a brighter day.

The ancients were observers of Creation and celebrated the cyclic nature of our lives and our home. Each year, as Winter’s grip seems too strong to break, the days begin to lengthen. Sol Invictus was the Roman celebration of the solstice, which occurred some four days later than it does now. All living things in their own ways, celebrate the sun’s victory each year. We humans have created all kinds of different observances and Holidays to ritualize our joy at the coming promise of a new year. Hope.

The tradition of the dreamcatcher evokes an idea of gathering and keeping all our good dreams while letting the bad ones disappear, leaving our lives hopeful. This coming year, I join with most of my human brethren in wishing the best of the coming year to all… even if I still have to pull that coat a little tighter around my old shoulders. Pull your loved family (two legs and four legs) closer to you. Share your love along with your hope. It’s the best gift we can give each other, and one that as long as we use it, it will never fail or wear out.

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