Coming Back Around

Hi there, hope everybody has had a great holiday season thus far. Apologies for not being around the last month, had oral surgery on the Third that ended up being far more debilitating than expected, and then just as I was getting wind in my sails again came down with a nasty cold that morphed into an inner ear infection. The ear infection remains, but I’m ready to pick things up again. Look for more coming out of this space soon.

Not Your Typical Update

In that there’s not going to be as much content as I had hoped. Last week it was the Thanksgiving holiday, this week I’m due for a complex oral surgery tomorrow and am swamped with getting everything taken care of at work before going on a two-day leave. I don’t imagine that I’ll get too much done over the next few days while I’m recovering, but stranger things have happened. In the meantime just wanted to let readers know that the blog is still going strong, and I have a solid half of a first draft of the next post. And it’s about a typewriter, some toys, and the holidays. We’ll see how it comes together.

In the meantime, onward to tooth destruction!

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The City Lights

Hey everybody, back from Thanksgiving break. Hope my American followers had a great holiday (and that everyone else had a great week/weekend as well). Strange times, for sure; hard to get into the spirit of things with how warm it’s felt lately, especially on Thanksgiving itself. Found myself sitting on the porch in short sleeves and not particularly chilled. Compare that with last year, when we had snow on the ground. I can’t remember it ever being this warm this late in the season. Hope it doesn’t bode ill for 2016.
 
Otherwise, had a good time visiting family and taking lots of photographs. Found some interesting postcards in Harrisonburg as well, ones that you can expect to see soon as I discuss locations in my novels. For now, here are some photos I took Thanksgiving night in Downtown Harrisonburg, to try to get a little cheer in the air. Will be out for oral surgery later this week…not sure what that means for the update schedule. In the meantime, have a great week.
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Holiday Week Kick-Off: Coffee and Wine

Happy Monday, all! Sunny day here, though the blast of cold air that greeted me this morning said that we had bypassed Fall and gone straight to Winter. Kind of a bummer, but we did at least get in a fun trip over the weekend, heading to Culpeper, VA for seafood, wine, photography, and a nice cup of coffee at The Raven’s Nest Coffee House (highly recommended). Sad to learn that the great German restaurant had closed down, but we always have a great time when we visit, and this was no exception. You could sense the holidays in the air.

Looking at a shorter-than-usual week with Thanksgiving (and a trip to see my parents) coming up, but I still plan to meet my usual goals. Just have to push a little harder. Hope everyone has a fun and safe week.

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Of KFCs, Strip Clubs, and Jeff George: The Open Road, Volume 1

It’s kind of a cliche, but when you live in a rural area, you actually do meet folks who have never left the state. It’s uncommon, to be sure, but it does happen. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this particular phenomenon, but I can say that looking at old photos of the Shenandoah Valley has granted me some understanding of just how isolated things were in the middle of the 20th Century. Not exactly shocking that the outside world seemed like such a foreign place, I suppose.

By the ’80s our schools were making an effort to take day trips to Washington DC and Baltimore to get us out of our bubbles and offer an up-close look at government in action. Even so, out-of-state family road trips seemed to be a relative scarcity, something that maybe came around once a year for the more fortunate families in the neighborhood. It wasn’t that we had no interest in travel, rather that money and opportunity prevented such treks. So it was that until the early ’90s I hadn’t exactly seen the world or much else outside of the Valley and DC.

That began to change in 1990 with chaperoned trips to Baltimore (and the Orioles) and Atlanta (and the Braves, back when they were a joke). We had a lot of fun and I got to experience some new things, don’t get me wrong, but they very much felt like kids tagging along with the adults. It’s hard to really experience the road when you’re reclining in the back of a van watching movies.

So I wouldn’t say I really “traveled” until 1993. I was a Senior in high school, 17, and working at Burger King in my off time. Being the smooth guy that I am, I had made some friends at BK; one of them, an assistant manager whose name will be withheld to protect the innocent, was a lifelong Colts fan and had never been to Indianapolis to see a game. Seeking to live the dream, he sought out three of us to hit the road and go to Indy to see the Colts (and budding star Jeff George, heh) take on the New England Patriots and their young quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

I had a passing interest in football but didn’t care much about either team, being a die-hard Redskins fan. Still, this would be my opportunity to live my own dream: an 11-hour trek across five states, a nascent version of my lifelong vision for crossing the United States in a car. You see, even as a young child I had harbored a deep fascination with travel, obsessively poring through road atlases and planning road trips, envisioning these highways in my mind. And I knew this particular route very well. Adventure? Hell yeah, I was in. The game would just be gravy.

We departed Harrisonburg on a Friday evening in late October, headed south on Interstate 81 bound for the I-64 Westbound junction. This road would take us through West Virginia and on into Kentucky. At the time I saw West Virginia as Virginia’s dysfunctional cousin and just the bit of the trip that we had to endure to get to the other side, but my view changed when I caught sight of the Charleston capital dome, bathed in light from below. The view captivated me and tugged at my heart, confirming some of what I suspected about such road trips and their transformative nature.

It came back to the idea of a secret world, of something hidden from view and yet in plain sight: the empty spot on the side of the road at 2 AM with you as the only soul around. The feeling that you might as well be the only person in the world (save for your driving partner) and of knowing something that the rest of the world does not. This wouldn’t solidify until later in the trip, but it began with that Capitol building. It’s tough to find a shot of the Capitol at night that can be used freely, but here’s a shot of the place in the day:

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So you get an idea of what it might look like at night, with that gold dome all lit up. Gorgeous, at least to my innocent eye.

From there we hit the roughest stretch of road, between that and Kentucky. I wasn’t cleared to drive the rental van due to being so young, so my job was to sit with the night driver and keep him awake and aware. It would prove to be an important – and difficult – job, as our guy for that stretch of road nodded off more than once, taking us onto the shoulder before I could shake him awake. You would think that one such incident would have shocked him awake (Lord knows it woke me up), but no. It took a few times to rattle him. Impressive, really.

At last we reached Lexington, Kentucky, and took a sharp northward turn. My mind wants to impart Lexington with more importance than it had for me at the time, but the truth is that the city would only mean something to me in 1995, a story that will wait for another time.

What did strike me, however, was Cincinnati at night, and this one particular revelation would be no joke, a shining jewel of beauty as compared to the flicker of brilliance back in Charleston.

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I had never seen anything like it, not even during the trips to Baltimore or DC. Here, then, was the summation of my road dreams as a child: something truly beyond my experience. A shimmering novelty, yes, but also true knowledge of a world beyond the one I’d known. Taking in that city as we passed through it on the flyways, gazing down at a darkened Riverfront Stadium, I grasped the importance of leaving the places you know, of gaining more context (there’s that word again). It also whispered something that I would truly understand later, the suggestion of what these dark roads could mean: hidden liaisons, dark secrets. Beauty and tawdriness, all at once.

And yes, I really did feel this at the time, though I didn’t yet possess the language to express it. It came across as a bittersweet and fascinating emotion.

We arrived in Indianapolis around sunrise and again it was something I’d never seen before. I find a certain poetry to pulling into a McDonalds on a gray morning to get breakfast and finding ourselves staring across the street at a gun store, right next to a liquor store. Familiarity juxtaposed with a sense of the desolation and danger of this strange new city. A pointed reminder that we were not in Virginia anymore, or at least the Virginia that I knew and understood.

The rest of the day is a blur. I know that I slept for a bit and I seem to remember trying to arrange a meeting with a girl that I knew out there, but that may have belonged to a different trip. I do remember the guys hitting a strip club that night, but for better or worse none of them were willing to take the risk of taking my underage ass into the place, so I stayed back at the motel picking my nose and watching TV. But hey, at least I got part of the experience, as my roommate brought a stripper back to the room. Sounded like those two had a fun night. I will give them credit, though, they did try to keep it quiet.

The game almost felt like an afterthought after all that, though I did enjoy it and would become a fan of live pro football. Again, something to talk about another time. The trip home passed in a blur of KFCs, Subways, and those mini flags that football fans used to attach to their car antennas (antennae?), but that’s always the way with such trips – the way back home is the inevitable decline after the climax. Warm and happy, but lacking in that distinct brew of anticipation and excitement.

It’s funny. That trip was the prototype for many trips to come and laid the groundwork for my relationship with my wife, but I hadn’t thought about it in years. It didn’t have the sheer drama of my Illinois or Minnesota trips or the beauty of my Savannah, Boston, and South African journeys, but I might not have found the courage to take those treks without this one. It opened the door to my love of the open road and provided the first glimpses of the secret places in my soul that I would later glimpse during my time on an Illinois highway, on the back roads surrounding San Antonio, and in the parking lot of a regional airport in Waco. The path to those moments wound through time spent passing through Cincinnati and gazing upon that Capitol dome. It was all, ultimately, about a greater understanding of my place in the world and connection to everyone else and would change my life.

Monday Thoughts and Prayers

Busy weekend, and yet not too much to report…mostly focused on work for the critique group that took place yesterday (and went rather well; quite encouraged that much of the criticism fell on portions that will be excised from the final book). Currently focused on getting back on schedule with the writing and Fallout 4, which has swept into my life and consumed the remainder of my all-too-scarce free time.

I had originally planned to talk about Fallout a bit today, but the events that took place in Paris on Friday night take precedence and make everything else look puny in comparison. My thoughts are with the families and the survivors and I hope that the world can come to a collective, rational decision on how to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.

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On Vanished Worlds and Historical Preservation

Hey regular (and new) readers, good to be back. As I said last week, had a minor health setback, but am ready to work once again. Word to the wise, though: avoid swimmers ear if at all possible. Shit is deadly serious. Now I’ve had a kidney stone so I can’t say it’s the worst pain I’ve ever encountered (although that was over in like an hour), but the words “agony”, “torment”, and “suffering” all easily float to the top of the mind.  I’m talking throbbing from neck to temple, the kind of stuff that makes you curl up in the fetal position and pray for death. Conversation was, quite simply, beyond me for a day or two. Real one-star experience, if you know what I mean. F–, would not recommend.

But hey, I’m doing much better today and can actually hear out of that ear, which was a pretty touch-and-go proposition for a few days. Now to ramp my activity back up to pre-pain days.

Anyway, moving on to this week’s (or should I say last week’s) topic, a few words on why I’m so fascinated with the past and historical preservation. One of the prevalent themes in my photography – almost a quest, if you will – is seeking out remnants of the vanished past, bits of detritus and ruins that remain from a long-gone world. This is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia, though that can provide a fun boost to such searches. It’s more about exploration and context and, consequently, what those can mean for your emotional landscape.

Take the photo below as an example. This is a shot of downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia during a holiday season in the late 50s or early 60s. This was an era where “downtown” really meant something, before malls came along and wrecked that paradigm.

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I came along too late for this era, by far; this was the world of my mother’s childhood, one that she’s described in glowing terms but which I couldn’t quite grasp until I saw this photograph. The reality pictured here haunts me as I consider what such a world looked like, felt like, smelled like. By the time I arrived on the scene the department store in the center of the frame had alreayd entered its decline phase, soon to close forever and live only in memory and photographs like this one. I never knew a world with that JOE shop, or the clothing store next to it. My memories of downtown are seedier, more ramshackle, a place that you visited only when you absolutely needed to grab one of the famous Jesses’ Hot Dogs.

Now even that world has vanished, replaced by a movement to attempt to revitalize the downtown area (but which is still falling short due to a combination of short-sightedness and the times having moved on from such mid-00s trifles). Here is a photo of the place from Christmas Day 2014. The big gray building on the right, a public school administrative building, is what remains of the department store above. I can’t say for certain whether the buildings to the left are the remains of those old stores. They don’t appear to be, but much can change in 50 years, including facades.

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This is where context is so important. The place looks sparse and utilitarian, even on Christmas Day, with little more than the modest wreaths to even indicate the season. The photo by itself might not spark much feeling if you didn’t look at that one above, didn’t know that this place once thrummed with its own vibrant sense of life. With that in mind, you can imagine those angels covering the two windows of the school building, of that display in the window above the entrance way. There’s an ache to the place, a bittersweet emotion that’s hard to define.

Historical preservation becomes near and dear to my heart where this emotion crosses with historical relevancy.  It’s about holding on to the floating ties of a vanished world, about offering context to the world around you. I’m continually shocked and amazed to discover strange realities floating just out of our mind’s eye, waiting to spring to life; the home that was once a convenience store, the general store converted to a restaurant. The lives that once intersected at that location matter, and it matters that we are aware of that convergence.

Now you certainly can’t save everything. I’m also a believer in change and progress, and sometimes it’s truly not worth the time or effort to save any hint of, say, a hot dog stand down the street. But we can save photographs from that time and us amateur archaeologists or whatever you want to call us can seek out the remains that may still stand.

This is why I photograph the places that I do. It’s why I think it’s important to photograph the detritus of places like the General Lee Motor Court, so that we can not only revisit places that we might have once known and get that hit of nostalgia, but also to contextualize our ever-evolving world. The ghosts of the past are all around us. We need to not only notice them, but reach out and grab hold of them, even if it’s simply capturing an image. Without that context, we can easily lose sight of just how our own world can vanish at any moment.

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On another note, expect a status update on my woefully-behind-schedule novel on Friday, and next week I’ll be back to talk about our upcoming trip to Culpeper, Virginia and what it means to me to be on the open road. See you again soon.

Update on the Marathon, Getting Back to Work, Fallout Cat

Hey all, had a decent weekend, managed 18 hours for the marathon (really getting too old for much more). Had some regular viewers and fun conversations on the chat and overall felt good about my participation. Will definitely do again next year, assuming the opportunity is still there. Want to thank all of the awesome people who contributed and made this a success. The money will help a lot of children.

In other news, feeling much, much better today and ready to get back to the work of writing. The illness will obviously affect timelines, but I’m not certain how much as of this writing. Hoping to get some time back over the Thanksgiving holiday, but we’ll see how that goes.

With the release of Fallout 4 just around the corner, enjoy Fallout cat.

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Extra Life Marathon 2015: Live Blog

8:03 AM – Finishing the initial set-up of the stream and getting settled in. I’d like to thank the Motion Picture Association of America for the delay; having some problems with their copyright encoding. First up will be Destiny, a 2014 massively online shooter that saw a major update in September that made it more user-friendly, with more story and proper quest lines. I’d given up on this game earlier this year, but am enjoying it a lot these days. Expect an hour of strikes and grinding. You can watch at http://www.twitch.tv/workingdogv1 and I’m still accepting donations at http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=175107. Thanks!

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9:12 – Sorting some Internet problems and technical software issues. I expect this to solve the ongoing streaming problems…hopefully. Never trust beta software. Soon up is The Witcher 3, an open world Action RPG from 2015. Coffee in hand, ready to go now.

Witcher310:02 – Okay I do believe the issues are hammered out. Leave it to Cox to decide to crap the bed today, of all days. Next up is Life is Strange, a decidedly less actiony game about a girl who can rewind time who’s trying to deal with high school and prevent the apocalypse. More of a story-driven game, this one is a real sleeper hit that I’ve come to love. I’ll be picking up in the middle of Episode 4.

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11:05 – Things are finally going smoothly. Going back to the Witcher 3 since the last time was such a disaster. Diablo 3 was always a fall-back plan anyway.

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12:37 – Just finished up lunch and back to Destiny until 1:30. So far, so good, aside from this morning’s technical hurdles. Some folks have joined in to watch, which is always fun.

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2:39 – Just went back-to-back with Destiny and Rock Band 4, now about to delve back into Life is Strange before the 3:30 afternoon break. Tiring a bit, time for more coffee.

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4:03 – Well that was quite the ending to that stream. Back from the afternoon break and ready to boogey. Time for more Rock Band!

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5:07 PM – Really feeling the length of the marathon now. I’m up to nine hours now, and it’s starting to feel it. Was doing well on Rock Band right up until the last song and hit a wall. Now it’s time for coffee and more Witcher 3. At least that’ll be slower paced.

6:07 PM – Destiny time again. I think dinner will be around 7, and past that I’m not sure what to play, since my Rock Band session with friends fell through. Maybe finish episode 4 of Life is Strange? We’ll see. Weird having coffee this late in the day.

7:42 PM – Just finished dinner and now it’s unscheduled time. I think I’m going to start by finishing Life is Strange Episode 4 and then maybe dig into Until Dawn? We’ll see how things go.

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8:33 PM – Explosive ending for Episode 4 of Life is Strange. Having some fun in the chat as well. Debating whether to go on to four or end at two in the morning…leaning toward the former. Still, feeling all right so far. Now to play Until Dawn.

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10:44 PM – Starting up again shortly with Life is Strange, going to try to finish up Episode 5 and the game. In other news, just saw this about a strange light in the western sky. Apparently a Trident missile launch? Crazy stuff: https://instagram.com/p/9zpu4eEmIA/

1:40 AM – Finishing up the fifth and final episode of Life is Strange right now, and then off to bed. Thanks to everyone who donated this year! Hopefully we’ll be back here next year. Until then, later!

Extra Life 2015: Raising Money and Playing Games for Kids (With Tentative Schedule)

Hey everybody! Still on the road to recovery with my ear infection but feeling much, much better. Almost well enough to get back to full-time writing again; I may dip my toes back into the book today, with an eye toward full-scale re-engagement on Monday. In the meantime, I think I may feel well enough to take part in the Extra Life 2015 marathon that’s going on tomorrow.

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So what is Extra Life and why should you care? Good question. Extra Life is a gaming-centric charity that raises funds throughout the year to support the Childrens’ Miracle Network in providing clinical treatment, pediatric medical equipment, and other related items. Every year the network hosts a 24-hour marathon designed to help raise funds, and this is my second year participating.

I’m currently $15 short of my $200 goal and could use your help. All proceeds go to the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital. Any amount is more than appreciated. You can donate here: http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=175107

Last year I met met my goal (and then some) while also playing 18 hours of games to raise awareness and raise funds. This year I’m hoping to do the same, while upping my commitment to 20 hours, which might be a tad much in my current state, but I’ll give it a go. I also plan to stream most of these efforts throughout the day, starting at 8AM tomorrow, the morning of November 7th. Here is the tentative schedule, which may change in the evening as I have some friends who might want to join in on some Rock Band 3; all should be viewable at http://www.twitch.tv/workingdogv1.

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  • 8-9 AM – Destiny
  • 9-10 AM – The Witcher 3
  • 10-11 AM- Life is Strange
  • 11-12 AM – Diablo 3
  • 12-12:30 PM Lunch Break
  • 12:30 – 1:30 PM Destiny
  • 1:30 – 2:30 PM Rock Band 4
  • 2:30 – 3:30 PM Life is Strange
  • 3:30 – 4 PM Afternoon Break
  • 4 – 5 PM Rock Band 4
  • 5 – 6 PM The Witcher 3
  • 6 – 7 Destiny (Tentative)
  • 7 – 7:30 Dinner Break (Tentative)
  • 7:30 – 9:30 PM Rock Band 3 (Tentative)
  • 9:30 -10:30 PM TBD
  • 10:30 – 11:00 – Night Time Break
  • 11 PM – 1 AM – Until Dawn
  • 1 – 2 AM – Destiny
  • 2 – 3 AM – ???
  • 3 – 4 AM – ???

Again, the schedule may change. I’ll try to live blog some here and interact on the channel as much as possible, but it may be tricky with having to, you know, play the games.

If you’d like to help out, the link again is http://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=175107

Should be a lot of fun as well as a test of endurance. Hope to see you there.