Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Not Even Remotely Interested

After several days of below-freezing temperatures, we here in western Pennsylvania have gotten some lovely snow today. I can call it "lovely snow" because I had absolutely nowhere to go today, so I didn't have to venture out in it in my white 1989 Ford Escort, which surely would have spun me all over the road. Note To Self: Never go driving in the snow in a tiny white car because, if you spin out and crash, no one will ever find you in the snowbank. This is a good strategy.

I have not really heard from my parents since the deep freeze began last weekend. In my weaker moments, I picture them frozen solid in their house, having forgotten to have a furnace put in. I picture my mother, cold and solid as an ice cube, standing next to the coffee table with a Swiffer cloth in her hand (which is also frozen stiff but which still picks up dirt, amazingly enough), frozen in mid-dust. In my mind's eyes, my father is frozen while putting out the trash, since my mother insists he put out the trash every time a new trash molecule hits a trash can in any room of the house. You never know when company will come over. We can't have them thinking we generate trash at any point during the day.

I try to remember that they spent most of their lives in Pennsylvania, and that my father actually plowed snow for a living during this kind of weather before they retired in 1994. Still, it is easy to worry about them now that they are within shouting distance rather than living it up in sunny Las Vegas. Then again, Las Vegas got snow this past week too, so I guess they could have just as easily frozen to death out in the desert.

Now there's a happy thought for me to start the day with.

Today, while stuck at home, I did some freelance work, badgered the girls into doing their Saxon math, and plotted out THE PEN IS MIGHTIER in Power Structure (my writing software, which makes me feel important when I use it, but also a little silly). The funny thing about using Power Structure is that you can print out various plot points or character sketches as you type them up. Well, okay, that by itself isn't all that hilarious, but trust me, the next part is. I saved the file with an abbreviated version of the working title of the novel and, when I printed out the character sketch of the main character, it put the file name at the bottom of each page. However, because it ran together as one word, the file name became "PENISMIGHTIER." Yes, go ahead and read that again, a little more slowly this time. Yes, it's really the name of the file. No, I didn't really think of it in terms of what it looks like once you take the spaces out from between the words. I innocently and naively named it in a way I thought I would remember and associate with the name of the work in progress. Turns out I'll likely be remembering this title for entirely different reasons.

And now I'm rethinking the entire plot too.

Wayne is downstairs in Electronic Geek Heaven: sitting in his La-Z-Boy recliner, feet up, new laptop on his, well, lap, of course, remote control inches away from his right hand. He's watching something on either the History Channel or the Discovery Channel or possibly the Learning Channel. Frankly, I get them all confused now that they've become virtually interchangeable. They all play the same sorts of shows, really. On any given night, when I say the four stupidest words in the history of womankind ("Watch whatever you want"), I find myself sitting in front of a retrospective history of the paper clip, or perhaps a building show where a bunch of men from Alabama reconstruct motorcycles out of old Budweiser cans and toilet seats from outhouses in the county.

"We're behind schedule on Joe-Bob's commodocycle, and we'll have to take short cuts in order to get it done in time for the contest in three days. I weld the seat lid to the carburetor and hope for the best. Meanwhile, Billy has gone and run a nail gun up through his nose ... again ... and we're forced to lose another two hours taking him to the Urgi-Care in Buckland County to have his sideburns sewed back on straight."

I mean, is it any wonder I bought a word processor to use on the couch when this kind of stuff is staring me in the face? How many times do I want to watch Modern Marvels do a series on why a suspension bridge works without everyone falling off, or a one-hour special on the history of a submarine that crashed and killed everyone on board when one tiny part busted off, all because no one had watched the show on the history of the paper clip?

Those were rhetorical questions. Do not answer them. There are no correct answers.

We have very eclectic tastes when it comes to watching television. On any given week, we go from watching the Steelers on the weekend, to whatever new series HBO is playing on Sunday nights, to Survivor (a true favorite for both of us), to old movies for me and the "build something from aluminum foil and toothpicks" shows for Wayne. My tastes seem fairly normal, but I'm waiting for the day when Wayne starts taking notes during one of those foil-and-toothpick shows. If he starts making trips to the Home Depot and talking about remodeling the bathroom, I'm outta here.

And I'm taking the remote control with me.

Wait, I just remembered that we have ten spare universal remotes, all programmed to work with this TV in case the other nine all break in the same millisecond.

Curses. Foiled again.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

"We Hope to See Less of You"

This time, dear readers, I'm sitting here at home, six inches from my computer but still typing this entry on the Neo. That's just beyond weird, but somehow it works for me.

I've got iTunes cranked up loud (one of my few concessions to the Apple world, since they make so few to us in the PC world), with "Numb" by Linkin Park bursting my eardrums. An anthem for living, if ever there was one. Well, perhaps not if you are 43, but I take what I can get.

Novel #3 has finally burst onto the scene, after stalling in fits and starts repeatedly since January 1. In fact, it's an entirely different story now. I'll get back to the previous incarnations someday, but not this month or next. For now, the murdery mystery of fun will take precedence. It's just too much fun to turn down, although it'll mean a lot of plotting so I don't get lost in the mess. No plotting might work for a character-driven piece, but once you start throwing in murders, you'd better be able to back them up with something like plot that ties together at some point. And not in the sequel, either. Didn't work for the Wachowski brothers. Wouldn't work for me either.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, if I find myself writing out plot points in a short burst, rereading them always manages to sound like I'm writing for a soap opera. And, not a very good one, either. No one's gotten amnesia or married their cousin by mistake yet, but give me some time. I'm sure I'll come up with something.

3:15 p.m.

I'm now sitting in the local library in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, at a table that is a tad too high, or perhaps the chairs are just a little too low. I am tempted to grab a very large book off one of the many shelves around me and sit on it so I can reach the keyboard more easily. Sitting on my coat would have helped, but it is 65 degrees today (yes, in January; yes, in Pennsylvania), so I have brought only my gray hoodie today. It's something, but not quite substantial enough to raise me up in the chair for more ergonomic comfort. Woe is I.

I have slipped an Elizabeth Berg novel off the shelf next to me and under the Neo to put that at a better angle for typing, and this has helped somewhat. Still, I am vexed greatly, and I wonder deep inside my soul why this blog is starting to sound like I'm trying to be a misunderstood writer.

My weight loss blog starts here

I'm doing a risky thing right now. I'm starting an entry about my weight loss program. I'm asking for trouble, but it seems to be a good idea at the moment, so I'll run with it and sort out the consequences later.

I'm down about eight pounds so far, having gone up two pounds over the holiday season for reasons I can only foist on everyone around me because that's usually pretty believable. So-and-so brought over homemade cookies. Thus-and-such gave me a gift certificate to Fat Burgers. That eggnog poured itself down my throat. And the list of credible excuses goes on.

And yet, amid the holiday season, I kept telling myself that this was the last time the family photos would have me taking up half the lens shot. It just wasn't fair to the rest of the family any more. It was time for me to do something about me.

I will allow myself one excuse: It is extremely difficult for the woman of the house to lose weight unless she takes everyone down with her. And I doubt anyone in my house is willing to take a bullet (or a celery stalk) for me. I'm on my own, but I still have to cook for everyone else. In my case, "everyone else" includes one on a sugar-free diet, another on a sugar-free low-carb diet, one who comes into the house long enough to drink a gallon of milk in one gulp but little else, and one who eats anything I put in front of him as long as he doesn't have to cook it or wash the dishes. Or even put his plate in the dishwasher after he's done inhaling the food. But I digress.

This is a dilemma. Huge dilemma. The kind of dilemma someone like me (read: no will power of her own and no inclination to borrow someone else's) cannot bear for very long without dire consequences. Like, eating a Quarter Pounder.

I fight the urge to simply yell, "You're all on your own!" some night and enact it for about the next year and a half. After all, what kind of eating lessons would I be teaching myself if I could only lose weight (or maintain a lower weight) when I never had to cook for anyone but myself? Easy enough when you're single, but tack on a handful of kids who come and go and a husband who, well, let's just say who never met a Hot Pocket he didn't like, and you have a diet disaster in the making. And, I'm livin' it, brothers and sisters. Every single, nightmarish day.

Part of the program I am on involves a periodic two-day "cleansing" that severely limits caloric intake and flushes the system with their own brand of fruity juicy stuff (not bad, really) and some veggies and lean protein. This usually jump-starts any plateaus I've been on, and aside from the pulse-pounding headaches I get midway through Day 1, it does work for me. I could do without the nausea and the hallucinations, but you can't have everything. In fact, you pretty much can't have ANYthing. I'm waiting for them to modify the two-day cleansing phase into something like: Drink 45 glasses of water today and breathe only purified air. Regular air will result in weight gain and also copious amounts of hair loss--but not on your head.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

3:45 p.m.

A man in a long black overcoat, with long black stringy hair, just walked by me very slowly, a menacing look on his face. He sat down at a table across the room, alongside a woman also dressed in black with long black hair (not stringy). I can only hope for her sake that they know each other and she doesn't mind, but it is difficult to say for sure because neither of them is speaking. Every other table in the room is empty except the one I'm at and the one she's at. If he sat down without an implicit invitation, then I'd say I lucked out. I mean, if his goal was to sit at a table with a woman in the library, then I had a 50/50 shot of it being me. But I'm not wearing black, and my hair is brown (well, the ones that aren't gray are brown). So, perhaps he chose her because of their shared affinity for dressing in black and having long black hair, hoping he had found a kindred spirit. In any case, it appears the day has not been a total loss. I am yet alone at the table.

And, the new novel is calling me. I believe it will be called THE PEN IS MIGHTIER, but that is beginning to feel like a working title. Speaking of working, that's what I should be doing. With that last tidbit, I am off to File #6 on the Neo and a newly created world that still smells too much like all my old created worlds. Gotta fix that....

8:00 p.m.

Home now, after a nice dinner out with my parents at the Fire Grill steak buffet. Eating dinner at 6 p.m. is like eating dinner in the middle of the night to old, retired people, but I convinced them to think of it as an adventure, and that seemed to put them at ease. I had to explain the concept of "darkness" to them again, since I am convinced they were out well past their usual bedtime. They did seem to enjoy themselves, though, much as young children enjoy the thrill of the circus for the first time.

It is, though, never a good idea to try to use the words "diet" and "buffet" in the same breath. They just don't belong together, although I didn't do too badly. I had a salad, some steak and chicken and a little fish, and then a sugar-free cookie and pudding. Oh, okay, and some garlic mashed potatoes. So sue me. I'll be paying for it on Friday when I get weighed in again. I'll probably be relegated to breathing purified air and drinking two gallons of water as penance.

At dinner, my mother and I discussed the beauty and wonder of Pennsylvania potholes, a phenomenon she and my father had all but forgotten about out west in Nevada. She will quickly learn that, in Pennsylvania, people exchange pothole stories the way some people swap fishing stories. ("Oh yeah? My PT Cruiser fell into a pothole the size of Aunt Martha's butt!") I predict it will all come back to them in a post-traumatic stress syndrome sort of way sometime around mid-February. Then there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And tires. Gnashing of tires too. That's the really ugly part.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

I'm Becoming a Starbucks Slut & AlphaSmart Groupie

Your local roving reporter is sitting once again in the Starbucks in Monaca, Pennsylvania, this time sipping a delicious venti mocha Frappuccino. The manager of this little hideaway (for it is new and few people have found it yet) now recognizes me as the woman who “works” in here. I hadn’t even ordered my Frapp yet, and my AlphaSmart wasn’t even yet on the table (a dead giveaway for the “recall” factor of remembering who I am). And yet this woman smiled, said a loud hello, and asked, “Are you here to work again today?” Yes, I tell her, for a little while. Mind you, I have only sat in this particular Starbucks about three times before, and the last time was probably nearly a month ago. So, I consider this amazing customer service for her to remember me so easily, even without seeing me at my usual table here behind the display of mugs and pre-ground coffees, before my AlphaSmart is even out of my briefcase.

The drive-thru does a very brisk business--a steady stream of cars rolling through as I sit here at any time of day--but the number of people who stay and sit in the store to drink their coffees has never been as brisk as I would like. Unless I am in a library, I tend to work well with a bustle of people and “people noise” around me. The piped-in music here is stellar and just the right volume to work, even without very many people around me. Right now, in fact, around 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, I am the only customer sitting in the store, although the workers talk animatedly among themselves and cheerfully serve the drive-thru customers. I do hope that this place continues to thrive because I enjoy coming here and making it part of errands I have in this part of town. I’m doing my small part to make that happen. If I have to sacrifice myself and drink more Frappucinos, then so be it. It’s the least I can do. And never let it be said that I didn’t do the least I could do.

Wait, that didn’t sound right.

Well, yes it did.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m trying to type with my left pinky finger covered in Band-Aids, which means it’s clunking down and hitting some extra keys when I don’t want it to. And, I tend to hit the “shift” key with my left hand, so that’s been interesting to work around. It’s hard to get a feel for how the new keyboard is doing if you’re constantly hitting the CAPS LOCK key with your pinky.

For those of you following the dull, plodding saga that is my life, I bought myself a Christmas present this week: an AlphaSmart Neo. I had been using an old AlphaSmart 2000 model I bought on eBay back in October, but I had been drooling over the Neo model (which came out in 2004) ever since seeing it on their web site a few months ago while researching their products for the eBay purchase. At the time I couldn’t justify pulling regular income to buy myself one, so I’d been hoping to save up some of my own stray cash and use any money given to me at Christmas to start saving for the Neo. Well, lo and behold, my rolled coins added up to over $50 in a hurry, and my parents and my mother-in-law came through for me with the rest of the money I needed to order my very own Neo last week. The little baby arrived on Tuesday and I’ve been in writer-geek heaven ever since. Don’t get me wrong: The 2000 model would have suited me just fine for years on end (the thing is indestructible and marvelous and I’d already gotten my money’s worth out of it). But, the Neo has some nice added features and upgrades to it that I really wanted, including USB and infrared data transfer, passwords, two-button turn-on, word count, etc.

I’d listed the pros and cons of getting the Neo over waiting a little while longer and getting a low-end, small laptop instead. But, the pros of the Neo won out, not the least of which was its price (less than half of a low-end laptop). Mostly, I had to be realistic about how I work and write, about how easily distracted I am (Spider Solitaire, anyone?), about battery life and convenience. The Neo won, hands down. No distractions. No games. And over 700 hours on just three AA batteries. The feel and size of carting around a spiralbound notebook of paper--just under two pounds, but feels lighter. The lack of data loss (instantly saves after every keystroke) added to its appeal. When I go somewhere with this thing, I know I will be writing and doing nothing else.

The funny thing is that I don’t get a commission from AlphaSmart. I don’t work for them. I don’t know anyone who works there. I just started reading about the things, thought I’d try one out the cheap way by buying a used one first, and fell in love the instant it got here. From here on out, I don’t see myself without an AlphaSmart. I don’t see how any serious writer could be without one. It’s like carrying around a pad of paper to jot down notes, thoughts, other writings--something most writers I know do anyway. Only this is better because it’s a keyboard and you don’t have to retype anything once you get home to your computer. It’s quick (instant on/off button, no booting up or waiting). It’s easy. You don’t even think about the batteries because they last forever. If you’re going to bother to carry around a notebook to write in, why not carry around one of these instead? It’s like an electronic notebook, only better.

And yes, cooler. I’ve had more than one comment from people nearby who sit and watch me type on the thing (either model), as if they had never seen such a thing before. If I were sitting here with a Sony Vaio wired to the max with every latest feature, no one would even look twice. Everyone does that at a coffee shop. But, sitting here with little more than a hunter green keyboard on the table, with a display sitting above the keys, just looks weird, I guess.

I don’t know how I would react to seeing someone with one of these at the table next to me if I hadn’t seen one before. Perhaps I too would interrupt them and ask all sorts of innocently naive questions. I know that if I saw someone with one now that I own one myself, I would certainly say hello and tell them I too owned one. AlphaSmart owners are an outrageously loyal bunch of people. It’s almost like a little technological cult. You can probably tell by just reading this blog how dedicated (read: insane) we AlphaSmart people are. I am not the only one who sounds like this. We all sound like this. Seeing your AlphaSmart and using it for the first time is a lot like a conversion. Your eyes feel suddenly opened and focused. Your head seems clearer. Suddenly you think, “Aha, I get it now!” And, life seems to make sense in a brand-new way.

And, worst of all, you feel you must proselytize others. You find yourself launching into tirades and rants about the pros of owning one of these machines. You begin to bore even yourself after a while because you begin to sound like the product spec sheet you inadvertently memorized when visiting the web site over and over again while awaiting the arrival of your very own model. But, you don’t care what other people think because you know your life has been deepened and enriched by the presence of your AlphaSmart. You know your writing is more prolific and more fun.

Even if no one is reading it.

The one thing AlphaSmart can’t do is make you a better writer--just a less procrastinating one.

And now it’s time to finish up my Frappuccino and head out of the Starbucks for today. There are more people here than when I first came in, the drive-thru is still quite busy, and it looks good that business may just boom enough for this little corner of the world to support the coffee and writing habits of one lone writer. Otherwise, it’s back to the library for me--and they don’t serve Frappuccino there or play The Smiths over a loudspeaker.

Perish the thought.