Extra Life, The Nationals, and Picture Log for 10/6 to 10/12

Time for the Friday housecleaning entry. I had originally intended these entries to be photo-only, but I think this is also a good place to tackle whatever happens to be on my mind, clear the cobwebs and reset for the weekend. I’m going to try to avoid talking about writing in these entries, but we’ll see if I can stick to that.

First of all, I’ll again be participating in Extra Life this year. For those who don’t know, Extra Life is an annual video game marathon/fundraiser that helps out the Children’s Miracle Network, a lifesaving organization committed to providing quality care for children, no matter what their ability to pay. Having grown up a bit disadvantaged myself, it’s a cause that is near and dear to my heart that aligns with one of my hobbies, so it’s a real no-brainer to participate.

I’m going to be honest; I’m struggling for donations this year. This is my fourth year, and each year I’ve seen dwindling returns, to the point that I am the sole donor at this moment. And this despite keeping my social media commitment and at times exceeding it. I’m not sure what else I can do, but I – and the children – could really use your help. I would be so grateful if you could contribute, even a dollar will help. My page is at https://www.extra-life.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=275297.

Okay, enough of that. Moving on. It’s funny, I had this rambling diatribe planned for the next section of this entry, but now that I’m actually sitting down to write it, I’m at a loss for words. Here’s the deal: I’m a baseball fan. Baseball, not just my team, though I do love my team…well, teams. I grew up a Baltimore Orioles fan (though sadly too young to truly enjoy the 1983 Championship team) and still follow them, but my primary team became the Washington Nationals as I watched them stumble through the early years. Hell, I was present at that god-awful first game, and I’m talking FIRST, the April 3rd 2005 pre-season charity game at RFK stadium. They were terrible for those early years, but by God they were our team.

Which brings me to last night. And 2012. And 2014. And 2016. Heartbreak every single time. Last year it kind of became apparent that this team was lacking “something”. I’m not talking intangibles, as I’m not necessarily a big believer in that kind of thing, but for whatever reason, the pitching and hitting just did not click together as a machine. Championship teams, you usually see that happen – they get the hits they need at the time they need them, the pitchers come up strong, the defense works at the right time. Honestly, last night, while the Cubs were a bit of a mess, I saw it with them way more than the Nationals. See some of Javier Baez’s plays, or Heyward’s grab of Matt Weiters’ fly ball. The Nationals had their moments during this series, for sure, but it just never gelled. I’m not going to point fingers because there’s plenty of blame to go around, though for once I’m not sure that Dusty Baker is actually the problem. He made a few questionable moves, but it’s hard to second-guess most of them.

Anyway, I think it’s time to blow up this current iteration of the team. Hold on to Harper and Rendon until the trade deadline next year so they can up their value, then trade them for some young talent. Harper in particular should bring back some nearly-ML ready talent. Give Victor Robles the chance now that we’re free of Jayson Werth. See if you can deal Daniel Murphy now and give Wilmer Difo a shot at second. Try to build the offense around players like Carter Kieboom and Juan Soto. Trade Strasburg. Not sure what you do with Max Scherzer because of his contract, but maybe someone will take him. Fill the gaps with reclamation projects until the kids start arriving, see if some of those pan out.

I will always have a soft place in my heart for this iteration of the team (except maybe Gio Gonzalez), but this series made it clear that its time is past. There’s no sense in clinging to it anymore. Might as well salvage what we can from this nightmare.

All right, enough baseball nerding. On with the pictures.

Visited a great used game store in St. Charles, MO on Saturday. Wish I could afford one of these machines. Or put it anywhere.

Picked up this rare “import” vinyl from our local record store. I used to be a big Nirvana bootleg collector back in the 90s, so I couldn’t resist this, especially for the price.

El Tio Pepe’s in O’Fallon is already proving to be our local favorite Mexican place. Reminds me a lot of this authentic place we had back in Harrisonburg.

Caught this gorgeous sunset in St. Charles right after we got out of Blade Runner 2049. Fantastic movie, by the way.

Monday morning was crazy foggy. This isn’t my picture, but it really captivates my imagination.

October is the season for horror soundtracks on vinyl! This is a limited edition copy of “The Void” soundtrack, from Mondo records. Synth goodness.

Bertram was feeling particularly affectionate toward his mother. He’s gotten very sweet in his old age.

And last, the NLDS of doom. See you next week.

Fiction Wednesday: Land of the Thief, Home of the Divergent

Welcome once again to Fiction Wednesday! Well, and as we’ll learn this week, sometimes also non-fiction Wednesday. I hope you don’t mind me speaking about the occasional non-fiction work, but I don’t think it serves a reader to only read one or the other, for a number of reasons (and let’s be honest, some non-fiction contains pure fiction and vice-versa).

This week I’m offering a review of Veronica Roth’s Divergent and my current thoughts on Cindy Young-Turner’s Thief of Hope, as well as the baseball book Bottom of the 33rd. My reading slowed a bit last week due to the holiday and some ongoing side work, but I’m hoping to pick up steam again this week.

Standard disclaimer: this is just one writer’s opinion. This is meant to examine the books not just for how much they sucked me in but also the nuts and bolts, the ‘engine’ of the stories, if you will. It’s just my way of getting as much out of these stories as I possibly can, and sharing those findings with the world. Now on with the show…

Divergent Divergent by Veronica Roth. I finished Divergent not long after last week’s post, allowing me some much-needed time to ruminate on the title and its context.

Let’s start by saying that the characters of Divergent are not really where the story shines. Some, such as Peter, are paint-by-numbers, “he-bad” caricatures that serve as little more than a stumbling block for the protagonist, Tris. Others are somewhat one-dimensional; the leader of the “Dauntless”, Eric, falls into this category. I had to look up Eric’s name in writing this review, a true testament to his memorable nature. The rest of the characters, with one or two notable exceptions, come across as players on a stage.

Tris starts out just as hollow, but eventually becomes more compelling as she discovers the truth of the world around her and begins to realize that she might have more behavioral choices other than those that have been handed to her. This, in particular, is poignant and a big reason why the novel works, but I’ll get to that shortly.  We are warned up front that Tris is self-centered, and this is borne out in the manner by which certain characters only take center-stage when they sacrifice themselves for Tris. For better or worse, those sacrifices mean very little outside of the context of Tris’s life, as we have barely gotten to know them and have no real reason to care for them. It annoyed me, but I suspect that may have been intentional.

Let’s also get one more gripe out of the way, as there’s no way around it: the writing is clunky. I’ve read worse, but I cringed in a few spots. I will say, however, that it’s not irredeemably clunky – Roth just makes some of the same rookie mistakes that most of us make, and I could see her prose becoming quite a force in the future. There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed without a little attention to the craft, and I see every indication that she’ll continue to dedicate herself to improvement.

I hate having to say all that about the book, because otherwise I really enjoyed it. The premise is interesting and, while Tris is a cipher at the beginning of the book, Roth plays this fairly well. The transformation works…well, okay, but the message behind the transformation is really what grabs the reader; essentially, Tris lives in a giant high school. In this world, appearance is pretty much everything and everyone has compartmentalized their emotions to one extent or another. Some, like the tribe she’s born into, abhor the self and anything to do with taking care of or wanting things for yourself; others, like the Dauntless, abhor fear and weakness. The law dictates that everyone is defined by their cliques and stay only within the narrow, prescribed social lanes. One’s greatest fear is not death, but of being without a clique altogether – “factionless”. Sound familiar? Continue reading

Pitching to Contact: Book Design by Committee

There is a term in baseball called “pitching to contact”. It essentially refers to people who don’t walk people but also don’t strike out many people. The thought is that a pitcher should try to make their pitches hittable enough that the batters get themselves out by hitting into double plays, popouts, etc. Some teams have this as an organizational philosophy and target pitchers who “don’t miss bats”. Apparently the idea for those teams is to try to get quick outs and keep pitch counts down.

There’s a problem with this philosophy: it’s wrong. There’s little to no evidence that sacrificing strikeouts in favor of quick ground-outs is effective in either keeping pitch counts down or in suppressing the pitcher’s Earned Run Average (ERA).

With Spring Training drawing to a close and quotes about pitching to contact coming back into vogue, I turned this concept over in my head this morning and realized that it also applies to the writing world…or artists in general. You could apply it to just about any artistic medium.

Let’s lay the groundwork here; it’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s one I’m willing to run with, so that should be enough. Assuming a writer is in the pitcher position (and that’s surprisingly apt, much like baseball the writer takes a one on one relationship with a reader, let’s say the editor is the catcher calling signs), the philosophy of “pitching to contact” would be doing just enough to both get something out quickly and put it somewhere that you think the reader (hitter) would want it.

The problem becomes readily apparent. Working quickly results in mistakes, and when you’re trying to target what you think the reader wants, those mistakes can become catastrophic. Say, for example, you’re writing a mystery according to a certain formula, hoping to woo mainstream readers. You want to get it out as quickly as possible because, hell, that’s what we do to earn full-time livings these days, right? Continue reading

Look Ma, I’m Versatile!

Friend and writer extraordinaire Paul Dail passed the torch of the Versatile Blogger Award (a great honor, by the way – you the man). When I first heard about the Versatile Blogger Award, I wasn’t entirely sure what the “versatile” meant. Maybe it meant that I could sing AND dance? …Some people would argue that.

But no, I read up on the award and learned that the “versatile” descriptor applied to the award itself, in that it was meant to be passed from one blog to another, serving as something of a self-selecting spider to highlight blogs that people find interesting and worthy. Just search for the award on Google and you’ll be rewarded with many quality blogs, some of which I would not have found otherwise.

The Rules

As with any award, of course, there are rules.

1. Thank the award-giver and link back to them in your post (done!).
2. Share 7 things about yourself (incoming!).
3. Pass this award along to 15 recently discovered blogs you enjoy reading (uhhh…15 might be a bit much, but I’m going to do my best this week).
4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award (yep, that I can do).

Continue reading

Your Own Private Field of Dreams: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

Baseball is an important sport to me. I’m not sure if I’m like other people and see poetry when I watch it, though. There are plenty of bad players, bad plays, and just crap in general that make it really hard for me to see the poetry of the whole thing. But I also see it as a lot more than robots playing out a series of numbers (that argument, and saber metrics, are a whole other topic that doesn’t belong on this page). But I can respect how much baseball evokes that passionate nostalgia in people. I know there are plenty of fans of other sports who have these same feelings about their respective sports – I mean, just ask a hockey fan to wax rhapsodic, they can go on and on – but something feels just a little bit different about baseball, and the mythology of it.

The writer side of me appreciates just about any topic that can evoke that kind of emotional response. That’s what I like about baseball as a writer. What I like about baseball as just your normal person is the way that it’s a single-player game disguised as a team sport. I think that’s part of what invites that poetic nonsense, as people have to jump through some mental hoops to see it as a team sport. It definitely encourages a sense of whimsy and delusion.

Without a doubt, I also have strong nostalgia about baseball. I could go on for hours (and I have, if you’ve seen my Nationals baseball card blog) about my own formative era in baseball, namely the late 80s and early 90s. I played for awhile, and enjoyed the hell out of it. There are days I still wish that I could play. So I understand where the impulse arises from, and find it interesting that there is so much baseball fiction. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of football (1378 titles on Amazon, not counting children’s books) and basketball fiction (roughly 730 titles on Amazon, again excluding children’s books)…including, uh, the greatest book cover of all time:

Seriously, just gaze upon that.

Respectable, no doubt. But baseball? 2399. And the gap between the others and baseball in children’s fiction is even greater. That’s just a very cursory glance, too. I’m sure there’s more (on all sides).

All of this brings us around to the fact that I was very intrigued when my fiance told me that the movie Field of Dreams was based on a book, Shoeless Joe. And that the book was on sale in the Kindle store. So I went ahead and picked it up and, thus, we’re going to talk about Shoeless Joe.

For those few who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, the concept is basically that a ghostly voice tells a guy to build a baseball field in the middle of his farm. He builds a cursory field and tends to left field first. Shoeless Joe shows up in left field and tells the main character, Ray Kinsella, to finish the field. As he does so, the remains of the Chicago Black Sox team appear, one at each position. Once this is done, Kinsella is sent to find JD Salinger (in the book)/James Earl Jones (in the movie) and take him to find a player named Moonlight Graham, a real baseball player who played one inning in major league baseball in 1905, without ever coming to bat.

Wackiness ensues, and…well, spoiler alert here, Kinsella ends up meeting his father, who is back as a young man playing for this version of the White Sox.

There’s also a subplot that becomes the main plot wherein Kinsella’s brother-in-law and business partner are pressing Kinsella with his unpaid mortgage. The mortgage has gone unpaid because he’s not much of a farmer, and these two are looking to create a giant corporate farming company. You never really get a sense that the farm is in danger, though. At least, not until the “climax”, which brings me to my main issue with the book: the plot meanders. Badly.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book. It took me a little while to get hooked, but once I did, I burned through it. But the plot just kind of wanders its way along. I was willing to accept the conceit of the voice telling him to do certain things – that’s not such a problem, even though it’s never explained. If you need a disembodied voice to send someone from the middle of the country to the East Coast on a crazy mission, that’s fine, especially within the context. But…well, plot threads pick up, and the resolutions are very “meh”. You never see the resolution of his relationship with his brother. You never learn what happens with the “rapture” of JD Salinger. The resolution to the problem of paying the mortgage, while addressed, is nowhere near as clear-cut as in the movie. Salinger predicts the solution, as James Earl Jones does in the movie, but we don’t actually see it happen.

The climax itself is pretty flat, too. I wasn’t sure how much to give away, but it’s nearly 30 years old, so I’m going to go with it. In the climax, the brother-in-law and his partner come to claim the farm, interrupting one of the ghostly encounters. During the showdown, Kinsella goes to get a gun from his car (one that was placed there earlier in the novel, kudos for following that up). He fires it into the air, which causes his daughter to trip and fall on the bleachers and start choking to death. The afore-mentioned Moonlight Graham, who had become a doctor later in life, transforms into his older self and saves the girl’s life.

Emotionally, it’s kind of all over the place, even just describing. First you have the tension of “will they claim the farm”? Then there’s the gun – will he hurt one of the business partners? Will he end up being arrested for this? What happens to the farm then? etc. Then the daughter falls. Will she die? But what about all those other unanswered questions?

Well, that’s the thing – her falling and choking takes all the wind out of the sails of the encounter with the business partners. Suddenly the mortgage doesn’t matter. The gun doesn’t matter. Everyone forgives one another as they’re racing to save this girl. Once the doctor appears and saves her, everyone is reminded of their mortality, and everything that happened before is erased. The mortgage problem is also conveniently solved at this point.

There is no consequence, and that contributes to this feeling of meandering. You never feel like you get a satisfying resolution to all of these high-stakes situations. It just kind of putters along, then stops.

The book is gorgeously written, though. Here’s a sample of passages that I saved for later:

“Suddenly I thrust my hands wrist-deep into the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”

“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees.”

“The feathered droplet on the ground looked so small; it shivered like an old woman’s hand as I picked it up.”

“Grit crunches underfoot on the unswept sidewalks. Unshaven men with sunken eyes dog my steps. I look at handguns, all heavier than I anticipate, cold as fish, smelling blue and oily.”

Overall, I ended up giving the book four stars on Goodreads. It possibly could have gotten five if the climax had been better. As it is, it probably would have been a three-star book if not for the excellent writing.

The author, W.P. Kinsella, has a very interesting story himself. We’ll look at that tomorrow, along with what was going on in the publishing industry from the early 80s to the mid-90s.