A Fine First Day of Spring — Open Ground, Eagles, Ice Cream, and Cookies

Yesterday marked this year’s occurrence of the vernal equinox, one of two moments each year when the sun stands directly over the equator. On March 20, 2017, there were approximately 12 hours of daylight everywhere on earth. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the hours of daylight are increasing as we optimistically enter the spring season, while those in the southern hemisphere see their days shortening into the melancholy of fall.

We had a beautiful, sunny day here on Lake Superior, with the high temperature soaring to a mild 43 degrees Fahrenheit. I went for a walk in the back forty, following the old snowshoe trail where I could still see it, and snapped a few pictures.

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Just to the north of our property, the snow is nearly gone as you can see above. The walking was very easy in this part.

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As I went further north, deeper into the woods, the remaining snow was more prevalent and the walking got a little harder. Without snowshoes, my feet fell through the top crust in a few places where the snow was still fairly deep — maybe 6 or 8 inches — but there were also patches of bare ground where the sun shone through gaps in the trees.

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I gave the eagles’ nest a wide berth so as not to disturb our majestic friends, but with my binoculars I could see the head of one of the birds, presumably sitting on some eggs. If you have really good eyes, you can see it in the photo above. (If I had a real camera with a telephoto lens I could have gotten a better shot than this smartphone snap. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

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When I finished my stroll around the snowshoe loop I took this shot from our front yard. With the former threat trees gone, our view of Lake Superior has been improved, but unfortunately so has our view of the highway.

Earlier in the day, we went into town and discovered that the Grand Marais Dairy Queen was celebrating Spring by giving away free cones. Not only that, but the proprietor was selling the last of his daughter’s Girl Scout cookies, so naturally we had to buy some.

All in all it was quite a fine first day of spring. I’m clinging to the memory as I look at the thermometer this morning (currently 28 degrees) and note that the forecast low for tonight is a chilly 9 degrees (or – 13 Celsius if I want to be really pessimistic). But this may be our final cold snap as spring overwhelms the dying winter. I’m looking forward to sunny days and golfing, just around the corner.

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The Sad Fate of Threat Trees

Last week, we traveled to South Dakota for the funeral of Bob Kjorsvig, my oldest son’s grandfather. Bob was an interesting man who accomplished a great deal during his lifetime. (At one time, he was the owner of the largest herd of Norwegian Fjord horses in America.) But time eventually catches up with all of us, and it was time for Bob’s final act in the circle of life. Bob will truly be missed.

In an ironic twist of fate, when we got back to our lovely home overlooking Lake Superior, we were shocked to see that seven or eight beautiful trees had been cut down during our absence.

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It turns out that these venerable old wonders had been designated as “threat trees,” since they were large enough to cause significant damage to the power line that runs parallel to the highway in front of our property. One of them broke off about half way up from the ground during a big wind event last summer and was being supported in mid air by some of the others. That’s probably what drew the attention of the threat tree inspectors.

Most of the trees were growing on the state highway right-of-way, but I think at least one or two were actually on our property. Nevertheless, I always thought of them as “our” trees. They’d been there since long before we bought the property, and it’s very sad to see them go. There are plenty of trees still remaining, but still, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss.

On the bright side, the removal of these trees has resulted in a clearer view of Lake Superior from our front windows. Also, they will provide a big boost to our pile of firewood and help meet our future cold weather heating needs. (That’s assuming I don’t have a heart attack from the exertion of sawing and splitting the logs.) And I know they needed to go — many people, including me, would have suffered hardship from a loss of power had one of them actually fallen on the line.

But these positives belong to a future, theoretical realm, whereas the downed trees are immediate and very real. Right now, all I can feel is sadness at the loss of some majestic creations of nature, cut down before their time, simply to safeguard humankind’s technology.

Farewell, old friends. You also will be missed.

Paul’s Creek

There’s a small creek that runs across a corner of our property. It’s one of countless nondescript waterways that run downhill from the forest into Lake Superior, known to the locals only as “No Name” creeks. It has a small waterfall that I like to look at every day. Here’s what it looks like today.

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Here’s what it looked like on Saturday (four days ago).

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And here it is back on November 28.

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During the summer, it generally looks more like the drip from a leaky faucet. However, during the spring melt or when it rains, the creek can swell to a raging torrent for a few days or even a week or two. Today’s rush of water is the result of an unusual warm spell that has given us several days in the forties and a few actually topping fifty degrees, compounded by a soaking rain on Monday afternoon and evening (two days ago). The December torrent followed a similar pattern of warm temperatures followed by rain. After that we had some more typical temperatures (and perhaps two feet of snow) until the current warm spell arrived last week.

Downstream of the waterfall, the creek passes through a culvert under Highway 61 and discharges into Lake Superior. Here’s what it looks like at the Lake entry point today.

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Normally there’s no visible channel – the water merely percolates through the stones, and you wouldn’t even be aware of water beneath your feet if you were walking along the shore.

My father, Paul, loved the little creek. He built a footbridge to cross it, about a hundred yards upstream of the waterfall, using fallen tree branches for support members and cross pieces. We called it his Flintstone bridge, because it looked like the little cars that Fred and Barney used to “drive” in the old cartoon show. It almost always washed away during the spring melt. Paul would recover the remnants from the downstream rocks, make replacement pieces for the ones that weren’t salvageable, and rebuild it. Once he passed away, I tried to rebuild it myself, but I gave up after a particularly heavy snow melt broke it into mere shards, tossed all the way downstream past the waterfall. (This fall, I built a little Flintstone bridge just downstream of the falls. When that one washes away, at least it won’t go too far.)

After my dad died, I decided the creek needed a name. With unanimous consent from the family, it’s now known as Paul’s Creek, although that name won’t be found on any map. In fact, all the maps I’ve seen actually show the creek in the wrong place, angling away to the east as it crosses our property, presumably passing through a non-existent culvert, and supposedly discharging into the Lake some 100 yards from its actual location.

As I was taking pictures today, I realized something. This interesting little creek, though invisible to most, is dearly loved by all who know it. It’s a bit misunderstood and hard to pin down (the mapmakers can’t even show it in its correct location). It regularly cycles through a wide range of behaviors, a meager trickle during the summer doldrums progressing to bank-bursting torrents of energy, then back again to the low energy state. To sum up: known to few; dearly loved though somewhat difficult; bipolar personality…

I couldn’t possibly have come up with a better name than Paul’s Creek.

Why is Golf So Hard (for some of us)?

It seems to be that time of year again. Around late January or mid February, I start to think about playing golf again. Golf is the accursed game that’s had an icy grip on my heart for over half a century. Every fall, the idea of ever playing again is banished from conscious thought by my wounded ego. But then, salved by the cold and snow of winter, fueled by watching the professionals on TV, the idea begins once again to percolate. I know it will once again consume me come the spring, though I still don’t fully understand why.

Golf has been described in many colorful ways, “a good walk spoiled” (Mark Twain) being one of the more famous. Most golfers will also say this, however: “A bad day at golf is better than a good day at work.” And Matt Davidson, in Slice, told his new bride that golf isn’t really better than sex, it just lasts longer.

Yesterday, I watched Jordan Spieth notch his ninth PGA Tour victory, becoming the second youngest in history to achieve that distinction (second by a month or so to the incomparable Tiger Woods). Spieth appeared frustrated as putt after putt failed to drop. Carding only two birdies, he still won by four strokes — a veritable cakewalk. He made it look so blasted EASY!  I know it wasn’t, but it looked that way.

For me, golf is anything but easy. I don’t have an official handicap any more, but at one time in my life I had it down to just under 10. I’ve managed to break 80 nearly a dozen times, most recently back in 2014, if memory serves. I have a million excuses for why I never get any better: I don’t play often enough, my clubs aren’t good enough, I never actually practice, I don’t take lessons, and on and on ad nauseam. But the deeply buried root of the problem is that GOLF IS HARD! As I approached the age of sixty, my game really started going in the toilet. If I were keeping a handicap, I’d guess it’s up to 17 or 18 by now.

Of course, this lousy golf also corresponded with a steady falloff in rounds played as I got incredibly busy with my final grand Rocket Science project. Just before retiring, I was down to playing about ten nine-hole rounds and five 18-hole rounds a year. Who could be any good with that feeble level of effort? (Excuse number one.)

My decline also corresponded with a remarkable decline in distance as I continued my transformation into a creaky old fart with lousy balance and limited flexibility. I gradually got rid of most of my trusty Wilson Staff woods and irons with stiff shafts and assembled a motley collection of hybrids and flexible-shafted irons, all used, mostly from Second Swing. Who could be any good with such substandard equipment? Look at these things — 13 clubs, 7 different brands! (Excuse number two.)

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Of course, I know I should be exercising and practicing, but what fun is that? But I do fully intend to put truth or lie to excuse number one. A retired guy like me needs to be out on the course two or three times a week, minimum. And I’m going to do it as soon as the courses open up here. Let’s see … that ought to happen by early June, for sure.

If (OK, when) that doesn’t work, I may finally pop for some new clubs. The golf club industry has become a juggernaut because most frustrated golfers do just that, and I know it rarely works, but what have I got to lose? Nothing but money, am I right?

I do also plan to do something I once thought unthinkable — move up to the Senior tees. (I suppose I ought to start exercising and practicing, as well. But who am I kidding? That’ll never happen.) I’ll probably just mope my way around the course, day after day, asking myself that age-old question: Why is this infernal game so insufferably HARD?

And yet, I absolutely love the game. (Maybe I should have asked Napoleon for some insight into that mystery.) I’ll keep you posted on how things go on the links as time goes by.

Twitter Micro-novels

Several years ago I came across a website or organization of some sort that was touting the concept of the Micro-novel. I’d provide a reference, but I haven’t been able to find one — my apologies to the originator(s) of the idea. The basic concept was to write an extremely brief piece of fiction — it had to be no more than something like 25 words — that would communicate something to the reader. I was intrigued by the idea and shared it with the Writing Wombats group I mentioned in my previous post. We had some fun trying to write Micro-novels, but then I had to go back to my day job and I forgot all about it for many years.

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Since then, Twitter has become a huge phenomenon. I recently joined Twitter myself but have been struggling to come up with anything useful to say in 140 characters or less (as you may have noticed, I am rather a wordy fellow). Our Tweeter-in-Chief is trying to rule the world through this medium. Who can compete with that? (Millions of people obviously can, but that’s beside the point.)

Then one day a light bulb went off. I remembered the old Micro-novel concept and asked myself a question. Why not write Micro-novels as tweets? Instead of a word limit, a Micro-novel would simply be constrained by the 140 character limit for a single tweet.

So, I’ve decided to begin writing Twitter Micro-novels. I challenged myself to write five of them as a start. I have put all five into this blog post, and then I’ll tweet out one a day over a five-day period, just to see what happens. If anything comes of it, I’ll do some more, but any future ones will be available only as tweets. Regardless of the outcome, this should be fun. Here goes.

Micro-novel number one, a tragedy:

The apex of Morgan’s career was the day she flew to Dayton. Agoraphobia struck as she entered the hotel room, where she resides to this day.

Micro-novel number two, a play on words:

Hope soared on Jim’s wedding day. Hope sank during the honeymoon. Hope endured thereafter, but she never went gliding or snorkeling again.

Micro-novel number three, a historical novel:

Albert’s thought experiment went very wrong. He thought he was immune to criticism, but the autopsy showed he’d actually been eating cesium.

Micro-novel number four, a psychological non-thriller:

Sometimes the past can be a door to the future. After many years on the couch, Myra learned that it can also just be a door to the past.

And the finale, another tragedy:

Harvey took a step back to admire his work. Later, he realized he’d once been the best window washer in all of New York City.

I owe the last one entirely to Eugene (Skip) Day, of Long Island, NY. Thanks Skip, I stole your joke and made it into a novel.

There they are. Maybe some other writers will seize on this idea and we’ll have an explosion of Twitter Micro-novels. Or maybe not. Let’s see what happens next week and go from there.

New Mystery Novel by Yours Truly

The moment you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! Perhaps it can serve as an antidote to the tumultuous events of the past weeks by providing an escape from reality. After all, what is more relaxing than sitting back in your favorite chair – or couch, or bathtub, or wherever – with a new book? So, I hereby announce the release of my latest novel, Lateral Hazard.

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If you’re so excited to start reading that you can’t be bothered with the rest of this post, just click on one of these links and get to it:

Amazon Kindle Edition ($2.99)

Lulu paperback ($13.50 + shipping)

Otherwise, keep reading for a bit of backstory on how this book came to be.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but kept putting it off for the future. I realized I’d have a better chance of making a decent living doing something more practical, so I studied Aerospace Engineering in college and became, as my wife Pat likes to say, a Rocket Scientist. Though my engineering career was very interesting and rewarding, I hung on to the dream of writing novels. I took a couple of evening classes in creative writing, and one of the instructors encouraged me to send a book proposal to a number of agents and publishers. In the early 1990’s, I did just that and was rejected by all of them, as are the vast majority of aspiring writers who do the same. (The Huffington Post reports that 96% of submissions to literary agents are rejected. And then, even fewer of those 4% who land agents actually get a book published.)

So, I didn’t quit my day job, as they say. But gradually, the publishing industry began to change with the emergence of eBooks and self-published works. Encouraged by this trend, I attempted to take early retirement in 2006 to give my writing dream another shot. That resulted in the release of Snowman to the digital world. But I soon realized that an astronomical number of other people were doing exactly the same thing I was. Snowman was merely a spec in the new universe, and virtually no one discovered it.

I started work on my second novel, Slice, while making a few attempts at marketing Snowman. (Of course, I wasn’t willing to spend a nickel on those efforts due to my inherently cheap nature.) One of my no-cost forays was to sign up for a “First Chapter” novel contest on Gather.com, an early social media platform that has since gone defunct. Two books were chosen by the Gather community and awarded publishing contracts. Snowman wasn’t one of them. Though I didn’t win the contest, I did link up with a number of other Gather subscribers who formed a group called the “Writing Wombats” to share experiences, encouragement, and writing advice. One of the Wombats, a rabble rouser named Ken Coffman, sponsored a “First Paragraph” writing contest. That sounded fun, so I submitted an entry. Here it is:

Alexandra Williamson didn’t like what she saw in the mirror. The luminous, sable-colored hair cascading to her soft shoulders was not the issue; that was perfect. Makeup was not the problem either – artfully applied blush accentuated her regal cheekbones, while shadow, liner, and mascara made her eyes the envy of a cover girl. Nor was it the smooth, toned skin, nor the exquisitely firm breasts reflected above the neckline of her monogrammed silk gown. No, what bothered Alexandra was the knife at her throat, about to spoil this pretty picture with ordinary, commonplace blood.

Amazingly, I won the contest. Just to keep things in perspective, I have to admit there were only a dozen or so entries, but a win is a win, am I right? It was the first time I’d actually won a writing competition of any kind. I decided that the winning paragraph, exactly as written, would be the start of my next book. Filled with enthusiasm, I had decided on a title and a premise for extending the paragraph into a novel by the end of 2007.

Then real life intervened. In 2008 I was back to being a Rocket Scientist, to support the family after Pat became a victim of reorganization. Again, I found the work interesting and rewarding, and writing returned to the back burner – something to do in the future.

Finally, in July of 2016, worn out from my forty years as an engineer, bent but not broken, I retired for real. By October, rejuvenated by a trip to England and Scotland and by taking up residence on the North Shore of Lake Superior, I had finished and released Slice. It was finally time to get going on the third book. And now, Lateral Hazard has also been released. Here’s a synopsis.

Samantha Williamson is taking a respite from her quest to become a star on the LPGA Tour, with a stint as an Assistant Professional at the Snake River Golf Club. She has the talent and the will to make it on tour, but an unexpected distraction – the handsome Snake River Pro – throws a monkey wrench into the works. Little did she know that her estranged father is the club chairman, or that his beautiful trophy wife would end up dead. When the Sheriff can’t solve her stepmother’s murder, Sam decides to investigate on her own, leading to disastrous consequences. This is a tale of lust, infidelity, blackmail, murder, revenge – and the redemptive power of love.

For the moment, it’s only available as an Amazon eBook (for $2.99) or a Lulu paperback (for $13.50 plus shipping). Additional paperback channels will be available in the near future. Watch for updated links on the Books page, or just use the author links in the sidebar for Amazon and Barnes and Noble – the Lateral Hazard paperback versions will show up there in due time.

So there you have it. I hope you enjoy reading the new book. If you do, I won’t be upset if you add a review to the Amazon and/or Lulu sites, or if you pass along a recommendation to someone else who may be interested. Thanks in advance!

The Back Yard is Pretty Cool, Too

Most of the photos I’ve been posting from my North Shore home have featured Lake Superior. No doubt about it, the Lake is the superstar attraction up here. But the woods to the north are also quite beautiful, so today I’m posting some photos from a snowshoe trek in the “back yard.”

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In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must confess that virtually all of these are not taken in our own back yard, but rather on the property to the north of ours. Also let me hasten to add that the property is not marked with No Trespassing signs, and that Pat and I never leave anything behind except our snowshoe tracks.

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I don’t quite have the selfie thing down yet, but here I am, after leaving the tracks shown in the photo above. You’ll note the absence of hat and gloves due to a stretch of inordinately warm weather up here.

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It’s a whopping 43 degrees Fahrenheit right now, and it’s been warmer than normal for about a week. We’ve lost about half of our snow during this warm stretch, but we’re supposed to get some more later this week, and the temperature is supposed to drop back to normal.

The most exciting thing about our back yard trekking so far has been the discovery of an eagle’s nest. We have seen a family of eagles flying and roosting in the area throughout the summer and fall, but they appear to have headed south several weeks ago. We didn’t know where their nest was, until stumbling across it a few days ago.20170124_143941

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Here are a few more photos from today’s trek. I hope you’ll agree with my assessment — the back yard is pretty cool, too.

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Good Stuff from Scotland (even if you don’t know its age)

One of my interests is single malt Scotch whisky. The Irish, or we Americans, would like to spell it as “whiskey,” so best to simply call it Scotch. I’m a fan and a bit of a student, but far from a connoisseur. I’ve tried probably forty to fifty single malts, and I’ve like almost all of them. The truly interesting thing about sampling different malts is the wide variety of sensations provided by the various distillers and brands.

The first, most obvious characteristics are visual — the color and clarity of the beverage in the tasting glass.  The experts point to three characteristics to look for when tasting: the nose (aroma), the palate (basically taste), and the finish (how long it lingers and the degree to which it changes in the mouth and throat after sipping). Malts from Islay almost all have a smoky nose, a rich, peaty palate, and a strong finish. There is much more variety in the Highland and Speyside malts, but to my taste buds the Speysides seem to be generally smoother and lighter, and less interesting.

Here is a look at my current selections. You can see that, with a paltry selection of only three choices, I am a piker in this field. But, what I want to talk about today is a new marketing trend illustrated by the three bottles shown below.

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In the center is Clynelish 14 year, distilled and sold by the Clynelish distillery of Brora, Sutherland. It’s called a “Coastal Highland” malt due to its location near the sea. I like its smooth, rich taste, but what I want to focus on here is the traditional identification of the malt as “aged 14 years.” This means the malt comes from barrels that were stored in the warehouse for no less than 14 years before bottling. Until recently, virtually all Scotch was identified by its age. The generally accepted rule is, the older the whisky the better. That wisdom is certainly reflected in prices, and it needs to be since longer aging delays the actual moment of payment to the distiller, and also increases losses due to evaporation (the angels’ share). But not everyone agrees with the sentiment.

The other two bottles are examples of a recent trend, the so-called “non-age-statement” malts. In these malts, whisky from any of the stored barrels may be mixed together, regardless of age, just so long as they have been aged for at least three years to meet the legal definition of “Scotch whisky.” The master distiller mixes the malt from barrels selected to provide specific, desired characteristics for a given brand. Traditionalists dislike this approach, because they don’t know how old the whisky is — they don’t have all the information they’d like. But I think they should just get over it. Many of the non-age-statement malts are excellent!

On the right is Highland Park Dark Origins, distilled and sold by the Highland Park distillery in Kirkwall, Orkney, the northernmost Scotch distillery in the world. This malt is supposedly intended to replicate the characteristics of the original whisky sold by Highland Park in 1798, but who on earth would be able to verify that? This brand uses more malt aged in sherry casks (from Portugal) than the other Highland Park offerings, which are primarily aged in American bourbon casks. What I do know for a fact is that Dark Origins is really good! (OK, it’s only my opinion, but in my world it’s a fact.)

I first tasted Dark Origins while on a summer tour of Scotland. I was at a pub in Dornoch, where I asked for a glass of Highland Park 18-year, one of my most favorites. The barman told me they didn’t have any, but asked if I’d like to try the Dark Origins instead. I did, and it was love at first sip. Later during the same trip, I toured the Highland Park distillery .

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As part of the excellent tour, I had the opportunity to sample seven different brands ranging in age from 12 years to an astounding 46 years. Here is the tour guide gesturing toward the 46-year malt, in a special display barrel. He didn’t tell us that it was 46 years old, but rather asked us to guess. Nobody guessed correctly.

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In all, we tasted malts aged for something like 12, 15, 18, 20, 25, 30, and the aforementioned 46 years. The fascinating thing was that the drams got better with age only up to 20 years. The 25-year was about the same as the 20, and the 30 and 46-year versions actually declined. (NOTE: That’s only my opinion, of course.) So, although the price one would pay for the 25 to 46 year versions grew astronomically, the enjoyment actually went down. (Of course, it’s possible my taste buds had just been overwhelmed by then, but I don’t think so.)

I asked the guide about Dark Origins, and he was not too enthusiastic about the new marketing trend. He agreed that the brand delivers a consistent, targeted set of characteristics, ensured by the skill of the master distiller, but as a traditionalist he would prefer an age statement. I don’t see how that would work, though, since every batch might have a different minimum age, making it nearly impossible to label and sell. At any rate, he agreed wholeheartedly that, as with beholders of beauty, the only important measure of a whisky comes from the person who is drinking it.

Back to my original photo (finally), at left is the Smokehead brand, from the Ian Macleod distillery near Edinburgh. The Smokehead brand is labelled as an Islay malt, even though it’s sold by a Highland distiller and other Macleod brands are Highland malts. It definitely has all the expected Islay characteristics, though, and stands up very well to the best Islay brands I’ve tried.

So, to sum up all this blather, I say don’t worry if you don’t know how old your Scotch is. If you see something that looks interesting, try it. If you like it, buy it. Simple as that.

Lake Superior’s North Shore in Winter

This is the first year my wife, Pat, and I have actually lived in our former vacation home on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and the first time we’ve spent significant time observing the Lake and the Shore during the winter. I’ve been taking boatloads of pictures with my phone, because every day I see things that are truly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Here are some of my favorite photos from December and January. I’m sharing them because I feel so fortunate to be able to live in such an amazing place. I hope they also bring some joy to those of you who stop by for a look.

Into the Maelstrom

I’m about to do something I’ve been dreading for years. Just thinking about it makes my heart race like a Lamborghini, turns my knees to jelly, sets my eyelids fluttering like a hummingbird, makes me gibber like a lunatic … you get the picture. I’ve tried to do it before but have always retreated from the challenge at the earliest opportunity, fleeing like a frightened puppy with its tail between its legs.

However, I’ve spent the weeks since November 8 digging deep within my soul, and I believe I’ve found the courage to face an uncertain future at the hands of the Trumpster. If I can face that, I can face anything. So, the time has come for me to enter the maelstrom.

So, what is this ominous, fear-inducing, paralyzing maelstrom? None other than the WORLD OF SOCIAL MEDIA!!!

One might ask the question: if it’s so frightening, why do it at all? The answer is simple: I have no choice. As explained elsewhere on this website, I’ve decided to embrace my longtime dream of becoming a writer. I’ve quit my day job and will soon release my third novel. Early on, I concluded that I’d never make a go of it through the traditional publishing model. I made a few half-hearted attempts at contacting publishers and agents, but soon realized I had neither the personality nor the perseverance for that route. I’m a hermit – I love writing, and I’d enjoy earning a few pennies for my work, but I just want to do it quietly, in the shadows. So, I went the way of web publishing. I have no agent, no editor, no collaborators of any sort. I just do it all myself.

There’s just one problem with my chosen approach – approximately 4.329 billion other people are doing the same thing, and my books are simply lost in the shuffle. Without an agent and a publisher, there’s only one way to market books in the twenty-first century – through Social Media.

So, off I go, to open accounts on Twitter and Facebook. If my head doesn’t explode, I’ll be back in a few days to post a progress report.