Monday, December 31, 2012

Lunatics, by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel

Hands-down, nuttiest book of the year.

The new year is upon us, and tonight marks the start of the annual tradition of assessing our lives and determining how we would like them to change. We look back over the past year, or several years, and see all the stagnation, all the accumulation, all the sloth and selfishness and business, and resolve that this new year is going to be different.

Or, if we are very, very lucky (and perhaps very, very driven), we look back and see just what we have accomplished. What we have gained. How we have changed. Then, we can look forward with the confidence born of accomplishments and decide how our future lives will be shaped by our pasts.

This process is never cut and dry, never simple, and usually not as conveniently bookended as a calendar year. Life is messy, in a way that fiction doesn't have to be. Which is why we expect the change from characters in books that we seldom recognize in our own lives. Page One is January 1st, and the final page is New Year's Eve. A character's life is never the same (or perhaps I should say "should not be the same") after a story concludes. The events and realizations affect a character just like they do us real-world folks... only usually much more neatly and tightly.

This year has been for me a year of reading and writing wildly, watching unbalanced characters in stories survive (or not) tumult greater than my own. So I figure, what better way to wrap up such a year than with a book called Lunatics?

Of all the fiction and nonfiction adventures I've been taken on this year, this one is without contest the craziest. Barry and Zweibel have a knack for what writers call "turning it faster," that ability to take a situation and test the boundaries of just how far it can be pushed. You know that moment when you think, "This can't get any worse for these characters!" and then it does? Yeah, these guys master that technique.

But it got me wondering just near the end whether they could bring it back -- whether or not I would see how the characters are altered by their experiences. The two main characters, Horkman and Peckerman, have an adventure of mishaps nuttier than most of us could imagine. But their attitudes and their perspectives, by the final page, have not changed one smidge. These are the same two deluded individuals who started the book. Yes, they had me laughing out loud and clapping my hand over my gaping mouth every five minutes. But at some point, the story needed more than humor.

It needed what we all yearn for on January 1. Change.

Who wants to look back on the past year and realize that the year has not changed them one tiny bit? More to the point, who could experience a year full of trials and accomplishments and not grow as a person?

As we slide into the new year, here's what I wish for all you Microphone readers. I wish you a year full of epiphanies and adventures, challenges conquered and struggles overcome. I wish you a year of both self-cultivation and feral jungle flowering. And I wish you the opportunity to look back on it all.

Life isn't what we do or what happens to us. Life is how those events change us, and even more so, how we change them. May you become more the person you want to be in 2013. And may your year have a storybook ending, where the hero and heroine stand atop the hill, better for accepting adventure and living their lives.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog, by Dave Barry

This blog's cherished bat poop jokes annual tradition.

I've never understood why so many families choose to attend movies on Christmas Day. For those who celebrate it, for either festive or religious reasons, the holiday is meant to be a time of memorable moments, of family, of togetherness. Maybe I don't watch movies correctly -- but I've never found them to be the epitome of close-knit quality time. (Especially not in theaters, where someone's bound to dump popcorn on your snarky and noisy familial bonding.)

What if, instead of paying ten bucks a head to send the crew to the cinema, every family gathering this time of year celebrated together by reading a book? I've got one that's becoming a bit of an annual tradition in whatever house I'm living in come Christmastime. Some folks love it when I pull out a book to read aloud. Others groan. Inevitably, within ten minutes, everyone's smart phones are sheathed and their chairs are in danger of toppling due to their edges being perched on.

Yes, it's a book about Christmas, though I suspect that anyone with a passing familiarity with the season would "get it." Christmas is the backdrop, but it's really a story about family, childhood, growing old, dogs, and the perils of accumulated bat poop. Things we can all relate to.

The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog kills every time. (Will it get you on the manger scene? Or the Rolodex?) And it breaks someone into tears every time. (At the same part. Every time.) That's why it's my favorite family Christmas story. But that doesn't mean it should be yours.

Whatever your flavor, try reading a book together this December. See if it doesn't provide all the thrills of the movies, with more interaction and easier access to cookies.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling, by Edmund R. Burke and Ed Pavelka

Starting up serious cycling? This'll get you going!

Earlier this fall, I got to thinking about goals, goal-setting, and goal-achieving when I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. While my post talked about goals in general and in storytelling, I had my own personal subtext at the time. I was in the midst of NaNoWriMo, that mad dash of creativity where thousands of people the world over sprint to complete a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. (I did it!) At the same time, I started riding my bike several times a week, pushing myself a little farther and a little faster each ride. The rides were a great way to experience nature and get to know my new environment outside Durango. But that tickling at the base of my brain let me know these rides were more than merry jaunts.

The distant stony mountains to the north, crisp in the clear air up here, challenged me. Beckoned me. If I could conquer a novel in a month, what was to say that I couldn't accomplish anything I wanted?

December 1 was my day of reckoning: the day registration opened for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. At the end of May, several hundred bicyclists ride 50 miles from Durango to Silverton. Over two mountains. Up over 6000 feet. And they race a train there.

Until this fall, I had probably clocked less than 50 miles on a bike total. And my biggest uphill was our residential driveway. So I figure, I'm the perfect insane person candidate to tackle the Iron Horse.

If my old man can train for (and triumph in) the IHBC, then that's the gauntlet. It's official. I'm riding over those mountains come May.

So far, I'm loving it. I fully expect there will be those times for despair, agony, heartbreak, and regret. (And angry quadriceps.) And I'll count on my lovely family and friends for support in those times.

I feel prepared, though. I can pick my dad's brain when I have questions. And I've read The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling. I'm the kind of fella that prefers not jumping into a challenge entirely cold. If I can read about it and learn about it, I will. This book won't pull me up hills, but it's brought me up to speed on the equipment, the lingo, the methods of training, and the nutrition. Now I'm not a total noob when I walk in a bike shop. I feel like I'm armed to accomplish this goal.

It's effing terrifying. But it's exhilarating, too. Considering that I am traditionally an eggheaded chap whose idea of a perfect day is reading in pajamas, this ride and its training may just be the perfect proof of what humans are capable of accomplishing when they put pride (and a sign-up fee) on the line.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Breaking up with Facebook

I am making the choice to break up with Facebook.

We share a lot of the same friends, Facebook and I, and I realize that ending this relationship means that I may lose contact with the people I have known and met throughout my life. That reality saddens me, but it is not enough reason for me to stay in what was becoming a lopsided relationship. I hope that many of my friends will choose to stick with me through this breakup. If they insist on staying friends with Facebook too, which I expect they will, I hope they at least don't tell Facebook where to find me.

The problem was, Facebook was really great to me -- in the beginning. The concept of a centralized social network, where folks can connect with other folks, with interesting groups and like-minded communities, with companies and movements and products, is just… convenient. Heck, it's maybe even necessary to our modern ways of interacting with each other. Even though Facebook made sure that my communication with friends stayed brief, going from wall posts to comments to likes, it at least kept me wired to a broader world. It let me know more about my family, friends, associates, acquaintances, and favorite celebrities than I otherwise would. So what if keeping in touch always felt like peeping through a window into their homes without actually getting to knock on the door?

Sure, we had our issues, but whatever problems Facebook had would go away as I got more used to interacting with it. I learned to embrace its method of staying in contact via a series of posts broadcast by my friends like miniature bulletins. The changes in Facebook's policies, its frequent manipulations of my preferences and privacy settings, were just the necessary quirks of adapting to this new age of socialization. Same with Facebook taking its pictures of me and all the information I gave it privately and showing them -- flaunting them -- in front of its advertising buddies. Yet an uneasy feeling lingered and grew like old cheese slices in the fridge.

But what could I say? If I tried to change anything, Facebook and its algorithms had the power to cut me off from everyone I hold dear.

I finally took a step back. No change, just distance. I went off for a weekend -- without Facebook -- and the time away gave me a new perspective. The problem isn't me and my inability to adjust. The problem is Facebook and its informational promiscuity. Facebook and its non-consensual violations of my personal space on the internet. Facebook and its changing the rules of our relationship, which it was my fault if I didn't see but which I agreed to explicitly every time I continued to call it up.

I used to be my own person, with my own space and my own standards of decent behavior. When did I let Facebook define not just how, but whether I interact with other people? When did I let Facebook decide what parts of me the world could see? When did complete personal transparency become the accepted norm for all of us?

Yes, Mama always said that if I didn't want the world to know something, then I shouldn't put it on the internet. But the internet is not the realm of the Big Bad Wolf, and it should stay that way. I never gave Facebook my social security number or my credit cards, thank goodness. I never shared anything with it that I wouldn't tell a girl on the first date. But we usually trust our dates not to sell our chitchat to complete strangers, don't we?

When Facebook announced another wave of security adjustments, it declared that it valued the quality of our feedback over the quantity of our comments. Well, Facebook hasn't listened to me yet, and I finally see the abuse for what it is. So I'm breaking up with Facebook, because it's the only voice I have that it will listen to. I'm tearing up the scrapbook with my pictures and my little descriptions in it. Deleting everything we ever shared seems like the best way of making sure I maintain some scrap of my privacy. Maybe by leaving Facebook I can effect some small change in the future I envision, which is a future where business practices treat me like the man I am instead of disregarding and disrespecting my patronage.

Breaking up with Facebook is the only way to make sure it doesn't start to violate other aspects of my personal, private life. It will also clear room in my life, maybe for a hobby or my work, or just to have some empty space to enjoy for a while. No need to rush out and repeat the cycle.

I understand that my life, as one of Facebook's exes, will be different. And I will mourn the loss of communication that will happen with other people in this new life. But what contact remains, I believe will be far more fervent and far less compulsive.

Such a dream is possible because taking time for myself also means more time for heartfelt (rather than merely convenient) connections with my family and friends. Facebook did a lot of discourtesy to me, but it didn't delete my email address, and it didn't cancel my phone bill. My channels to the wider world will be narrower without Facebook than with it, but I think that my connections will run much deeper and more meaningfully, because they will be self-motivated and not Facebook-enabled.

Also, my communications will be private and personal once again. The publication of our lives is not necessary. It is not inevitable. It is not permissible, and yet we allow it to penetrate our daily lives. We embrace it so tightly that we can't see what its hands are doing down where the sun don't shine.

It's time we remember who's in charge here. We have the power to say no as much as yes. We are the ones to set the rules for this new age of social networking, like how many dates until we round second base (and whether or not Aunt Sally gets to read about it). We must strive to maintain our individual privacies, rather than learn to accept a standard of no privacy at all. Otherwise, what answer will we give the future when the future asks us who its real mommy and daddy are?

I tell you one thing: I don't want to beget the future with Facebook.

If Facebook wants to have any more contact with me, it will be on my terms. It can come to my office and act professionally. We can conduct business as colleagues, both of us benefiting from the terms of our arrangement and neither of us taking unrequited advantage of the other. Not again. That's why I'm keeping my Zach Hively author page alive and active -- that profile helps me (on my terms) reach a reading public. That side of me, the professional side, is a naturally public side, and anything I share as a writer is meant to be public. So have at, Facebook! See how you think I fit into your little algorithms now. You'll never get into my living room again, let alone my bedroom.

Setting myself free has always terrified me, even more so than chaining myself down. But that's why I have to make this move. I do not want to concede what is right and good for what is simply convenient. I do not want to compromise privacy for a default public setting. I want us human beings to dictate our communities and not relinquish our power to evolving technologies and those in charge of them. We determine the shape of our futures.

It's taken me a dozen or so times of fantasizing about this future day to make it my present reality. And it feels good to be strong. Sayonara, Facebook.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Coldest War, by Ian Tregillis

One of the best follow-ups in ages. Check it out for yourself, and support the blog in the process!

Last year, I came across Ian Tregillis and his first novel, Bitter Seeds. This book blew my hair back in a big way. So many follow-ups are disappointments -- they continue toying with a played-out premise, or forget what made their readers fall in love with the early stories, or lose threads, or fail to surprise their readers any more.

The Coldest War, in the most emphatic way, is NOT one of those sequels. Tregillis isn't writing a train of connected books, seeing what happens with the same characters twenty years later. He's crafting a series where the second book changes how you read the first one. If the first volume blew my hair back, then I can blame the second one for my encroaching baldness, because my hair couldn't even hold on for the ride this time. (I almost regret coming to this series while it's still being published. I would have sacrificed needed sleep last night to read the third book straight through.)

In the first volume, I appreciated how Tregillis (more than many authors of all genres, though it's particularly important in sci-fi and fantasy) gave each of his characters' actions risk and consequence. The bigger the action, the weightier the repercussions. And no action is easy; every one is dearly purchased and limits further actions.

The Coldest War does the same thing, though perhaps less of it -- this volume's less about supermen vs. warlocks and more about emotions and machinations. In this book, I noticed the importance of precise language taking its place. The words spoken come with immense consequences and are all the more dangerous because they are so easily breathed.

The necessity of linguistic precision crops up in many stories about magic. Spells go wrong because of the nuance of translation, or the ambiguity of grammar, or the altered meanings that come with variations of tone. The concept is nothing new.

What Tregillis remembers, though, is that words aren't only magical when magic is being performed. The very act of language is itself alchemic. We take abstract concepts, give them representative symbols (in words and sounds), and cause events to happen, emotions to swing, people's behavior to alter. Sometimes it's simply physics -- our vocal chords vibrate the air, which sends tremors to our eardrums or to mechanized voice detectors. And sometimes, the effects of language go beyond our capacity to explain with physics.

Whether people wield words like scalpels or scythes, they cause shit to happen. And in The Coldest War, hoo boy, does shit ever happen.

[Superficial side note: I am no book designer, nor a publisher, so I hardly know best what helps a book on the shelves sell. If the new cover designs for the Milkweed Triptych will increase sales and get The Coldest War into more hands, it's a success. I mourn the loss of the dust jacket design from Bitter Seeds, though. It was one of the more handsome, melancholic, evocative covers I've seen, and I looked forward to having a complete matching set. Ah well; so it goes.]