7 Things I’ve Been Doing Over the Past 7 Weeks

It’s been almost two months since I’ve updated the blog, and now that it’s the last day in October, my bare-minimum-standard of posting at least one update each calendar month is in serious jeopardy.

Part of the reason for no updates is that life has been fairly routine lately, and well, routine doesn’t make for interesting blog entries. But there have been a few things going on. None of them quite merit their own post, so I merged them all into one.

Without further ado, I present seven things I’ve been doing over the past seven weeks.

1) Enjoying the day job

My job is best summed up as “enterprise-level tech support.” At its best, it’s a string of interesting, challenging problems to solve. At its worst, it’s interdepartmental bickering and a long game of “pass the blame.”

But the good days far outweigh the bad. I’m in a position where my work is seen and appreciated, there’s plenty of chances for advancement, and on top of that, I like almost every single person I work with. Even better, when I put in long hours (which is often), I get paid overtime, which is unusual in the world of I.T. So, unusually, I find myself enjoying my day job.

On the down side, because work is challenging and mentally taxing, I often find that I have just enough mental energy when I get home to watch Youtube. Speaking of which, item number 2…

2) Watching Youtube Science Videos

A couple months ago, I stumbled on the world of Youtube math and science videos– amidst the morass of cat videos and pirated “Simpsons” clips, there’s a world full of really interesting documentaries, all of them free. In particular, I’m a big fan of Brady Haran, a video journalist who works with professors at the University of Nottingham in England. He has a bunch of channels, but my favorites are:

Periodic Table of Videos– a channel with a video for every element on the Periodic Table, as well as lots of chemistry trivia in general, and of course tons of chemical reactions. My favorite video on the channel is probably the one on Fluorine, Element Number 9, which is so reactive it can start fires on contact:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtWp45Eewtw%5D


Numberphile– a channel for Math geeks. Lots of videos about famous numbers and theorems, and occasionally branching into physics, cosmology, and the nature of reality. Did you know if you lived in a giant universe a googolplex meters across, and travelled far enough in it, you would start to see exact copies of yourself?


Brady has several other channels, including Deep Sky Videos (a video for each item in the Messier catalog of astronomical objects) and Sixty Symbols (a Physics channel). From there I’ve branched out to other channels, including SpaceRip (some great Astronomy documentaries there) and vSauce (a very awesome science video blogger).

Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time surfing the intelligent side of Youtube– it turns out there is one, after all! And while, admittedly, some of this time could be spent more productively, it’s given me something to watch while I work on #3, namely…

3) Cooking

Yes, to my surprise, I’ve actually started cooking. Those who know me know that cooking is not my strong suit. In the past, it’s ranked somewhere below quilting as far as things I’m actually good at.

Then I started going to a Farmers Market three blocks from my apartment, and things changed. There’s something about being outdoors and browsing through the fresh, local produce that’s totally different than going through the aisles of a supermarket. I started small— buying fresh spinach instead of packaged for tortilla wraps, buying fresh carrots, that sort of thing— then slowly stepped it up. I bought steaks and potatoes and learned to cook them. Lately I’ve been sautéing vegetables, mixing them with pasta, or eggs, and generally exploring and experimenting my way through the basics of cooking.

I’ve tried to cook in the past, usually by following a recipe, and my results have generally been mediocre. What I’ve learned is that for me, the trick to cooking is (1)to have my starting point be the ingredients, not the recipe and then (2)experiment on my own. I seem to learn best through self-guided experimentation: that’s how I learned writing, and it’s how I’m learning photography; for some reason, I find learning and doing things much more fun and rewarding when I’m experimenting and picking things up on my own.

Maybe part of it is because this way, I don’t feel like I have standards to live up to or any expectations to meet except my own. Or maybe it’s just that I’m doing it because I genuinely want to, not because I feel like I have to.

Regardless, cooking’s been a blast.

Speaking of general health and self-improvement, I’ve also taken up…

4) Swimming

A few blocks from my office, on the fourteenth floor of a downtown skyscraper, is a gym with a five-lane pool. And about three times a week I’ve been going there to swim, which, in addition to being much-needed exercise, has been a fun blast from the past. I used to swim for my high school swim team, almost every day for four years; then when I went to college, I dabbled in water polo, but pretty much abandoned water sports. (And sporting in general, actually, except for occasional games of ultimate frisbee.)

On the downside, when I go to the gym I often don’t get home until 8:30 or 9, which, on top of the newly-discovered hobby of cooking, means it’s often as late as 10 before I’m finally winding down. At that point, I often end up…

5) Obsessing Over Election News

On the less healthy (or at least more stressful) side of things, I’ve been following the election pretty close. Even in quiet years I’m a news junkie, and the past few months has been like hooking a drug addict up to an IV drip of sweet, sweet heroin. In other words, it hasn’t been healthy.

I have a love-hate relationship with politics. I care deeply about various issues, but political debates give me serious heartburn. That’s one reason I hate phone banking and canvassing; the thought of actual personal confrontation is terrifying. And yet, I do care about the issues, and when I have time to be deliberate about it (like when I’m writing), I’m perfectly capable of putting together an argument for my point of view.

Here’s why I care about politics: even though government can be inefficient, callous, and dysfunctional, it’s still one of the best tools that we as a society have to address problems. And government, like any tool, can be used well, or used poorly.

At its best, you get the interstate highway system, the national parks, the worldwide eradication of polio, a man on the moon, the Civil Rights Act, and universal education. At its worst you get society-wide oppression, the strong dominating the weak, trillion-dollar boondoggles like the Iraq War (and inadequate care for the returning veterans of those boondoggles), bloated bureaucracies, and outdated and decaying infrastructure. Add in political paralysis like we’ve seen in Washington the past few years and it’s a wonder we get anything done.

A lot of my friends say that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, we’re screwed either way. And maybe that’s true. Corruption and influence-peddling infect everything; those in power often look after the big organizations that support them at the expense of the individuals they govern. But for all that, it’s still the system we have. And when you don’t vote, when you refuse to participate, you say “it’s okay to ignore me.”

Here’s my plea: find some issue you care about. There are a lot out there to choose from: the economy, education, gay rights, the environment, health care, stem cell research, Iran. Regardless of your political stripes, and even if you think our political system is a dysfunctional mess, find at least one thing you care about, one thing you’re passionate about, one thing that needs to change. Vote on that issue, and vote your conscience– whether that vote is for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, whether you live in a red state, a blue state, or a swing state (my sympathies), if you vote your conscience on that one thing you care about, it’s not a wasted vote. If everyone did that, I daresay our nation would be in much better shape.

Ultimately, regardless of money or lobbyists, we live in a democracy. You get to vote; Exxon Mobil doesn’t. So when we elect corrupt or greedy slimeballs to office, ultimately, there’s no one to blame but ourselves. And when you don’t vote, you’re refusing to help fix it.

So vote. You’ll be glad you did. And in a week, regardless of who wins, my blood pressure will finally start to get back to normal, and maybe I’ll be able to focus more on…

6) Writing

You didn’t think I was gonna leave this out, do you? Even though this list sounds like a long list of excuses as to why I haven’t been writing, I have, actually, gotten some done. I’ve mostly been working on editing my first novel, In a Land of Wind and Sky. I’m hoping I might get a chance to pitch it at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. Oh yeah, I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto this weekend! It should be a blast.

I’ve also sold a story to an anthology that’s coming out in 2013; when the editor makes the official announcement, I’ll finally be able to say more about it. But I’m even more excited on this one than usual, because…. well, you’ll see. Hopefully soon. (I’m such a tease.)

I’m also planning to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, and I have a novel idea lined up, although not necessarily well fleshed out. Plus, being at the World Fantasy Convention from the 1st to the 4th means I may get a late start. But I’ll take a notebook with me and hope for the best. If nothing else, I should come home energized and ready to churn out the words.

I’ll also bring my camera, because I’m becoming increasingly serious about…

7) Photography

Like cooking, this is another hobby I’ve been teaching myself. Unlike cooking, I’ve already been at it for years. I particular enjoy convention photography, and taking pictures of cosplayers. There probably won’t be many, if any, costumes at WFC this weekend– it’s a very professional convention, for people who are actually (at least a little bit) in the business of writing. But still– there’ll be plenty of panels with authors, plenty of hanging out with friends, and plenty of chances, I hope, to break out the ol’ camera.

I’ve even done a couple professional gigs lately– mostly friends who wanted me to do event photography, but still, everyone’s gotta start somewhere. I’m working on putting together a portfolio, in the “Photography” tab up top. It’s very much a work in progress, but I’m definitely hoping to do more.

———————

So that’s what I’ve been up to the past several weeks. Hope everyone else has had a good two months. And my next blog entry will definitely be a lot quicker, because I’ll have a con report on World Fantasy, probably next week sometime. And then NaNoWriMo status updates. Time to stop slacking!

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Today was a Good Day

Note: Clicking on any of the photos in this entry will take you to a super-large version of the picture. If your Internet speed is slow, you probably shouldn’t click.

Just felt the need to exude some general warmth and satisfaction on my blog, because today was a good Saturday. It was a cloudless Februrary day (rare in Seattle), and as I drove to a nearby mall to meet with my Writers Group I got great some great views. On the left where the Olympic Mountains about thirty miles to the west, and on the right were the Cascades about thirty miles to the east. Here’s a quick shot of the Cascades I took from the car window:

I’ve lived in Seattle for almost four months, but every time I see mountains in the distance (which is a fairly frequent occurrence), my brain still goes, “Holy shit, look at the mountains!”

Probably a dangerous instinct, at least when I’m driving, but I love it. I guess I’m making up for thirty years of living in flat places.

At the Writers Group, my latest finished short story got good feedback. This isn’t the story I’ve been tweeting about lately; this was just an 800-word piece of flash fiction. But still, the feedback was generally positive, with a few good suggestions for improvement. This is my favorite sort of feedback to get: zero suggestions for improvement isn’t good (after all, that defeats the point of Writers Group), but if the feedback is more on paragraph and sentence level edits than global issues, then I feel like the story is on the right track.

In the afternoon, I walked down to Pike’s Place Market for a late lunch, where my table was right at a window looking out over Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. (If you look closely at the photo, you can also see flying saucers forming up for invasion… what? No, that’s not a reflection. Don’t be silly.)

Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around the various cool little shops that inhabit Pike’s Place Market, and also eating more. There’s a dessert place called The Confectional, and once I saw those magical four words, strawberry white chocolate cheesecake… seriously, I don’t think there are four words in the English language that are more likely to make me shell out money. Later, I had a smoothie at another place that was also good at stringing together nouns in a mouthwatering, and somewhat more healthy, manner (banana pineapple strawberry apple). Both were as good as advertised.

There were also some Native American drummers playing nearby, and I stopped and listened to them for a while, leaning over the nearby railing occasionally take pictures of the Seattle waterfront. (Note: If you only click on one super-large photo on this page, make it this one.)

I hung around a while longer, because seeing the sunset over Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains is another sight that does not get old.

When I got back to the apartment, I even managed to be productive for a few hours and get some work done. All in all, an Extremely Good Day.

And just because, one last shot of the downtown skyline from the waterfront.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

After blogging about Egypt, I felt like I needed something a little more light-hearted. So I decided to partake in the Romance Blogfest, put on by Jordan McCollum. Her instructions are as follows:

The theme is Love at first sight . . . or not so much. Post a first meeting between two characters who will fall for each other (even if it doesn’t look like they will at the time!).

You may write a new scene on the topic, OR you may post a scene from your WIP.

So for the first time ever, I shall post an excerpt from my 15-months-in-progress novel on the blog. It’s not strictly a meeting, but it’s the first time the female protagonist lays eyes on the male protagonist, and yes, they do eventually fall in love– it’s complicated, of course, but such is the nature of love.

But it’s definitely not love at first sight. The initial emotions are, shall we say, somewhat more acrimonious.

———————————————————–

Iliya stood on the roof of a building just outside the castle walls, blending into the crowd. She chuckled to herself. The Emissary would probably not be pleased that she was up here, even though several other people were sitting there casually, including two other women. A bunch of kids were sitting in a row across the front, dangling their feet off the edge, and yelling happily at the crowd that stretched out below them, lining the street. There were thousands of people here; she hadn’t known there were this many people in all of the Ama’s City, but they had come, seemingly out of nowhere, to be here today.

She had tied her hair back into a simple ponytail, so she looked more like one of the villagers instead of a servant of a high-ranking official. She also wore a pair of pants instead of her usual robe. Since there was no business in the castle for which she needed to follow the Emissary around today, she fully intended to enjoy her free time.

Someone taped on her shoulder, and Iliya turned and grinned. “‘Bout time you showed up.”

Erysa stood next to her. “Fahru said to blend in,” she whispered. “The roof is blending in?”

Iliya shrugged. “Hey, I’m blending in.” She gestured to the people surrounding her. “Besides, this is my day off. He can’t order me around today.”

Erysa had also dressed in pants and a shirt, and she chuckled. “Fair enough.” She sat down, leaning her elbow on the slanted roof. “We can blend in together, like a couple of Skylands peasants.”

Iliya sat down next to her. “The atmosphere here is quite a change from when we first got here, isn’t it?”

Erysa nodded. “I don’t see any signs of the Fatigue anywhere. Everyone’s healthy, and happy, smiling and laughing…” she grimaced. “If we were somewhere else, I might join them, instead of wishing for their kingdom to burn.”

Iliya nodded. The mood of the people reminded her of the Spring Rites back home in Elairyn, when the end of the winter storms and the bursting forth of new life was celebrated. Not only did the whole city celebrate, but many of the merchants from the Outer Reaches sailed in with their families to partake as well. The Spring Rites had been the last thing they did in Elairyn before leaving for the Skylands, and for a moment, a pang of homesickness gripped her.

“Look,” Erysa snapped Iliya out of her daydream, and stood up. “Is that them?”

Iliya stood and squinted in the direction her sister was pointing. Far beyond the village, near where the mountain slope turned more gradual as it joined the grassy steppes, she could see a cloud of dust being kicked up by a long line of horses. “Looks like it,” she said. “They’re a ways off. I’d say they’re still a couple miles away.”

One of the kids noticed where she was looking and followed her gaze. Both she and her sister had great eyesight, but the kids’ were almost as good, and the boy jumped up in excitement, barely preventing himself from sliding down the roof. “It’s Satoro!”

Excited murmurs ran across the crowd.

“Where?”

“Where are they?”

“I can see them, on the other side of the village!”

“Are they almost here?”

The excited yelling slowly died down to a steady murmur as people realized that the approaching soldiers were still a ways off. As the soldiers got closer, the path took a curve and she lost track of them, her view blocked by a grove of trees at the edge of the village. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the crowd had mostly grown silent but an excited, nervous energy ran through it that she could feel, and in the distance, she heard the crowd erupt in cheers. The cheering continued and got louder, and then she saw them. Rounding a corner was a procession of soldiers in full battle armor, banners flying tall from their polearms, which they hoisted high into the air. Their armor was painted in black and dark reds, with intricately detailed carvings and workmanship, as was the usual custom for Skylands mages. In front was a man riding a magnificent brown horse, which lifted its hooves high with every step and kept its head raised up, as if it knew it was carrying one of the most important people in the Skylands. The horse’s rider wore a helmet with large, fearsome horns and an ugly mask, and he nodded from side to side at the people he passed. He wielded a sword which he held high, waving it slowly over the heads of the crowd.

So this was the famed Satoro Kei. Iliya felt a fierce anger rise up within her at the sight. Maybe it was the casual arrogance as he rode on his horse and soaked in the cheers of the crowd; maybe it was the sight of the Skylands banners flying high in the air. In her mind, her memory flashed back to that night when her city burned, when another Skylands mage stood over her, sneering at her dismissively: “get out of Elairyn, girl.” She clenched her fist. She hadn’t gotten out of Elairyn; instead, Elairyn had won that battle, and now it had successfully placed assassins in the very beating heart of Sky.

She felt a strong grip on her hand, and looked down. Erysa was also staring at the procession, with the same dark look on her face. Iliya gripped her sister’s hand. She knew they would probably be conspicuous, as the only two people not cheering, but she didn’t care. She wanted to take her father’s sword and slam it through his face mask, the way she had done to the mage who killed her father.

Behind Satoro, armored warriors tromped down the path, two by two. There were sixteen of them in total, a surprisingly small force. Iliya wondered if she and her sister could take them all. Probably, given the element of surprise.

At the foot of the castle steps the procession stopped, and Iliya saw the stablemaster, Jiro, step forward and take the reins. Satoro bent his head and took off his helmet, revealing a young, smiling man with shaggy brown hair. He slapped Jiro on the shoulder and grinned, talking to him for several seconds as the rest of his soldiers rode up. Iliya was amazed at how young he looked; she had pictured Satoro as an older man, possibly with a goatee and an evil gleam in his eye. This didn’t fit her picture at all. As he handed off his helmet to a nearby servant, several kids from the crowd darted up to him, and he knelt down, gathering as many as he could up in a group hug. She spotted Kaena among them, and Satoro tussled her hair as he walked up the steps. He waved at a friend in the crowd, stopping several times to say hi, then at the top of the steps, he turned, and waved his arms one last time, causing the crowd to erupt with a massive cheer.

“For the Skylands!” he cried, and Iliya winced as the resounding cry echoed from the entire crowd.

“FOR THE SKYLANDS!”

The only thing keeping her from jumping off the balcony and killing Satoro right then was her death grip on Erysa’s hand. When Iliya finally released her fingers, it took her a few minutes to shake feeling back into them.

———————————————————–

Ahh, can’t you just feel the romance in the air?

Here’s hoping you have a happy Valentine’s Day, preferably uncontaminated by murderous rage.

Happy New Year!

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” -Charles Kettering

Happy New Year, everyone! I usually don’t do New Year’s Resolutions, but I figure New Year’s is as good a time as any to set some goals. Most are goals I already have, but I’ve found that if I can clearly articulate what I want to accomplish, it’s often easier to follow through. (Hence the quote.) A lot of people are scornful about New Year’s Resolutions– I used to be one of them– but really, they’re just a tool, and how effective they are depends entirely on how you use them. So I don’t make resolutions simply for the sake of having resolutions, but I do use them to articulate goals and reflect on long-term plans.

First, though, a quick look back on 2010. Last year was without a doubt one of the craziest years I’ve ever lived through. If you told me on January 1 that I would end the year living in a tiny apartment in Seattle, I probably would have laughed at you. But it’s been a good year, mostly.

Ways 2010 Was Awesome:

-Moving to Seattle, and thus breaking out of a years-long career and personal rut
-Three words: Cross-country road trip
-Summer trip to Europe
-Started writing more regularly
Lots of sci-fi conventions
-Managed to network at said conventions, to the point where I’m on a first-name basis with several published authors and editors
Several great backpacking trips

Ways 2010 Was Not So Awesome:

-Unexpected deaths in my own and friends’ families
-Saying good-bye to everyone in Raleigh (yes, one event can make both lists)
-Failing to sell my house in North Carolina
-Not finishing my novel
-One word: politics

So there you have 2010 in a nutshell. All in all, I call it a very good year. Heck, the first bullet point in the “awesome” list alone would have made it a good year. But now on to this year.

Goals for 2011:

-Finish the first draft of aforementioned novel
-Write at least one short story every quarter
-Submit those stories to Writers of the Future, and magazines if/when they don’t win
-Get out and date. I’m tired of being single.
-Finish online classes and become a certified hypnotherapist (I should really do a blog entry on this)
-Attend the World Science Fiction Convention in Reno in August
-Also attend Dragon*Con in Atlanta in September
-Keep doing photography, both studio and outdoors
-Go on some West Coast backpacking trips

There’s another category of things I’d like to do, but these are not 100% in my control, so I don’t feel right making them goals. But if I pursue the goals above, I’ll hopefully increase the odds of them happening. Let’s call them hopes:

-Get a story published
-Be able to leave Software Development behind as a career
-And on a more personal note: Fall in love

So there you have it: my own goals and hopes for 2011.

Happy New Year, folks. May 2011 be everything you hope for.

One Year of Blogging

Well, one year ago today I put up my first post here. I haven’t made any attempts to publicize the blog, other than sharing it with friends and occasionally posting a link on other sites. So it remains my own little quiet corner of the Interwebs, where I can ramble about whatever I want, fine-tune my writing skills, and share the details of my writing and my travels with whoever cares to read.

Here are some numbers from the 365 days the site’s been up:

64 Blog Posts
8 Short Stories Submitted to Magazines
Of those:
5 Rejections (3 Personal Notes, 2 Form Letters)
2 Responses Still Pending
1 Magazine Closed Before Replying

Also:
4 Backpacking Trips
3 Science Fiction Conventions
2 International Trips (1 of which I still need to catch up on) spanning 4 countries
1 NaNoWriMo completed

150,000ish words written (just a guess, really, between blog, novel, and short stories)
1831 Visits to the Blog By People Who Aren’t Me
681 Photos Uploaded to Flickr

It’s been a busy year. Next year is looking to be even busier; it starts (much like last year did) with Dragon*Con, coming up next weekend in Atlanta. This time instead of just Saturday-Monday, I’ll be there Thursday-Monday! Yay! In the interests of saving money, I’m sharing a room at the Hilton with 7 other people, so yeah… gonna be interesting. But if I could survive staying in shelters on the AT, I’m pretty sure I can survive 8 people in a hotel room for 4 days. (Note to self: Bring earplugs. And Febreze.)

One last note on the blog. Here are the top few search engine results that have brought people here over the past year:

offthewrittenpath
time magazine afghan girl
scott siegler
jennifer blanc
off the written path
avatar pocahontas comparison
cyborg deer
nasfic report

Clearly, if I want to bring more attention to the blog, I should write a story in which Scott Siegler and Jennifer Blanc attend NASFIC in order to rescue an Afghan girl from an evil cyborg deer with the help of a bunch of people cosplaying Na’vi.

Hmm… maybe not. Thanks for reading, everyone!

Memorial Day: Remembering Normandy

Back in 2008, my Dad and I spent several days traveling in Europe. We made our way by train from London to Berlin, where Dad had a conference to attend, and I spent a few days touring the city before making my way south across Switzerland and then back west to England.

Along the way, I kept a journal, and when I got back, I strung several of the entries together into a work I called “Vignettes from the Train.” Each of the pieces worked pretty well on its own, but they were too short to do anything with individually, and strung together, they felt disjointed, so the pieces of that journal have sat on my computer since then, waiting for me to figure out what, if anything, to do with them.

The most poignant part of the trip came shortly after leaving London, when we stopped in France for a couple of days, specifically the region of Normandy. History and World War II especially is one area where our interests cross paths, so we decided a trip to the location of the D-Day landings would be a good idea. This also produced some of my better writing from the trip, so since it’s Memorial Day (and the D-Day anniversary itself is less than a week away), I decided to post some of the excerpts. This first one is from Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery not far away.

Not everyone will agree with the impressions and thoughts I carried away from that day. But that day changed my outlook on the world, and I strongly believe that every American should visit Normandy at least once. And if any soldiers, or family members of soldiers, happen to read this quiet little blog, I salute you.

———————–

We stood on the sand, watching the ocean and imagining that day, sixty years ago, when the horizon would have been dotted with gray ships, and the beach would have been swarming with mines, landing craft, and soldiers, fighting and dying against the German defenses securely nestled in the high bluffs lining the shore.

Omaha Beach was the deadliest landing zone on D-Day, not least because of those bluffs. In addition, miscalculations by gunners and bomber pilots meant that the initial rounds of shelling had been directed too far inland, and most of the defenses were still intact. When the American soldiers landed here, it was literally a death trap. The order was almost given to pull back and land at Utah Beach to the West, but the Americans rallied and at the end of the day, at a cost of thousands of lives, the defenses had finally been overrun.

From the battlefield we went straight to the American Cemetery, where ten thousand American soldiers who gave their lives in Normandy and other parts of France are buried. It lies on a plot of land which has been given by France to the United States, so that the soldiers who gave their lives can rest forever in the soil of their native country.

As we entered, we passed a Visitor Center, and a row of plaques which praised the heroism and valor of the people who had died here. But out in the middle of that field, surrounded by a sea of white crosses stretching into the distance, it all felt strangely… hollow. Standing there, in the midst of all that death, it seemed blindingly, amazingly clear that this was a not a place to praise heroes… it was a place to mourn people. Each cross, each little dot in that overwhelming sea, represented a person. It represented a father, a husband, a son, a best friend, a family member. Each person here had a life, with hopes, and dreams, and an entire book of stories to be told, all of which ended suddenly, tragically, one day in 1944.

It was not for nothing. In the end, through the collective sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of individuals, a continent was liberated from the Nazis. Still, it was impossible not to stand there without being absolutely overwhelmed by the human cost of war. How many people died because of the evil, greed, and insanity of a few powerful German leaders? How many millions gave their lives to save the world from a few?

There’s another side to this story, too. Today, we are still generating new fields of white crosses. We praise the sacrifices of those who came before; we salute their heroism, and valor, and courage, but in this place, such praise rings empty, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of tragedy. We should know, by now, the horrible price that people pay during war. We should know, by now, that war should be the ultimate last resort. But we don’t. Because lives are still being cut short, children are still losing their parents, parents are still losing their children… and we will praise their valor, but we will not learn the lessons their deaths should teach.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m pretty sure the answer doesn’t lie in just not thinking about it, or in ignoring the horrible questions presented by this field of pristine white crosses.

On the Northern side of the cemetery, there is a short stone wall bordering the path. Looking over the wall, you can see Omaha Beach far below. This is a view that the German defenders would have had, and if you look hard enough, you can still see bits of wreckage jutting above the waves, far out in the ocean. How many people buried in this cemetery died trying to take that stretch of beach down there?

War, and history, stop being abstract in a place like this. If you strain hard enough, you can still hear the roar of the guns, and the shouts of the troops, and you can still smell the blood of the people who were killed. It’s a bleeding that’s still going on today; in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and who knows how many other countries all over the world, wherever the lives of human beings are cut short by war. It’s a bleeding that’s been going on since long, long before each of the people buried here said farewell to his family, not knowing if that goodbye would be the last.

The reality of that thought, and the reality of this place, are overwhelming. I stand still on the walk for a moment, struggling with the need to just sit down, curl up into a ball and cry. But our time here is up, and it’s time to climb back on the bus, and see what else there is to see.

———————–

The second excerpt is from the afternoon of the same day, when we visited a tiny Normandy chapel. I’ve forgotten its name, but the impressions from that visit stick with me as strong as Omaha Beach.

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We enter a small, eleventh century chapel, sitting on the outskirts of a tiny French town. It seems pretty ordinary; there are probably a thousand chapels in France just like it. The difference is, in 1944, two American medics set up a medical station here, and saved the lives of dozens of soldiers and civilians alike. Even as the battle lines moved, and they found themselves in German-controlled territory, they stayed. The medics begged the Germans to let them continue their work, and they were allowed to do so. The fierce fighting destroyed the stained-glass windows, but those windows have since been replaced with new ones… commemorating not scenes from the Bible, but the heroism that happened right here.

One window has an Airborne Division logo; another has a paratrooper. A third has the American flag, the statue of liberty, and a red banner with a bible verse on it. The verse is John 15:13, printed in both English and French: “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

Americans love to make jokes about the French, and probably vice versa. But something about being in that chapel makes all the animosity between America and France seem incredibly petty. Maybe it’s the broken floor tile in the middle of the chapel, where a shell fell through the roof but didn’t explode. Or maybe it’s our tour guide, Alain. He was living in America when the Iraq War broke out, and he saw the backlash against French non-involvement that included little insanities like the widespread adoption of the term “Freedom Fries”. He talks to us of how America and France are like family, and even though family members may argue now and then, in the end they are still family. France, he points out, is the one country that has been allied with America since the days of the Revolution. Our countries may have their disagreements, but there’s a deep and binding brotherhood there, too, and it’s on proud display in the stained glass windows of that little chapel.

Near the door there’s a pew with a dark red splotch. It’s a bloodstain from one of the wounded soldiers who was treated here. Instead of cleaning it, the villagers sealed over it, preserving it as a memorial. Standing there, I don’t think I’ll ever make a joke about the French again, unless it’s about their unwillingness to take credit cards.

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Thanks again to the members of the Armed Forces who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their country, their family, and their comrades. I fervently hope the day will come when the bleeding stops, and you don’t have to any more.

Geek Moment: Going Fanboy on Jonathan Coulton

Quick note: this weekend I got to see Jonathan Coulton perform. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he’s a staple of geek culture: he wrote the ending song of the extremely popular video game Portal, and has written numerous songs, most of which involve robots, zombies, or mad scientists. Or various permutations of the above.

His song Code Monkey reminds me uncomfortably of my current job:

More than just his music, I like Jonathan Coulton because he’s someone who was able to quit his job as a software developer and pursue his creative dreams full-time. I guess you could call him something of a role model in that regard.

The opening band, Paul and Storm, were pretty good, too. Lots of geek humor from them: Blade Runner and Star Wars references flew back and forth, and they occasionally argued over grammar with members of the audience (all in fun, of course). I didn’t realize this until they mentioned it onstage, but they were former members of DaVinci’s Notebook, another awesome band which wrote one of my favorite songs ever, Title of the Song, which you don’t even have to be a geek to appreciate.

So yeah… this blog post had basically no point other than for me to vent some geekiness and link to a bunch of awesome songs. But that’s okay. My next blog entry may even be about writing… isn’t that what this blog was supposed to be about? So hard to remember…