NaNoWriMo Success (ish)!

I started National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) with about 54,000 words written in Book Six of the “Stasis” series. At this moment the book is 85,300 words. That means I fell 18,700 words short of the NaNoWriMo goal of writing 50,000 words in one month.

In decimal form, I accomplished 62.6% of my goal. If this had been a class, I’d have a D minus. The worst passing grade you can get.

In picture form, my hopes of reaching 50,000 words had a progression something like this:

Bright optimism
Winter of discontent
Mushy despair

It’s much like when I took Calculus 112. I listened in class, I did all the homework, and I studied for the tests in order to achieve my goal of getting an A. But my grades kept coming in worse than I’d hoped. As finals approached, I determined that I needed a 69% on the exam in order to have a “B” for my semester grade. I crammed, I went to the testing center, I worked through every minute they allowed me, and at last I turned in my final. Then I gathered with the crowd of students waiting for their name and test score to appear on the screen. The dread in that little vestibule was palpable.

Finally, my name flashed on the screen, accompanied by a huge “69% D.” I yelled, “YES!” and happily left the room, to the perplexed stares of the other students.

Circling back to NaNoWriMo, I’m happy with my D minus there, too. I really like those 31,300 words I wrote this month. The book has taken some turns that completely surprised me. I’ve loved getting to know some of these secondary characters that have troubles and passions all their own. I wish the end of the book were already in existence because I can’t wait to see what happens next. And, I cut out several thousand words I didn’t like.

Yes, I didn’t meet my goal of having 104,000 words by the end of this month. My hopes, like the Jack-o’-lanterns, turned to mush. But unlike the Jack-o’-lanterns and Calc 112, instead of ending up with something nasty or barely passable, I think I ended up with something like this:

Pumpkin Pie Happiness

Congratulations to everyone who had a NaNoWriMo success (or success-ish) this year!

Tricky Hexaflexagons

Vi Hart has a series of mind-blowing videos that explore intriguing math concepts in rapid, quirky, entertaining ways.

I love the little hexaflexagons. You can think of them as half nose-pincher (or fortune-teller, or origami basket– you know, that toy you made during church by ripping the program into a square and folding in its corners to the middle, then flipping it over and folding the corners in again) and half way-cool-math-avante garde concept art.

I made some short videos to simply explain how to make and use the two kinds of these tricky devices:

How to Make a Hexaflexagon

Hexaflexagon Design Tip

How to Make a Hexa-Hexaflexagon

How to Find All Six Sides on a Hexa-Hexaflexagon

If you’re a teacher, feel free to check out my three lesson plans on hexaflexagons. I included links to the Vi Hart videos. The links are to her Vimeo videos, because you can download them from there (so you don’t have to rely on streaming them during class).

To Beard, or Not to Beard

If space aliens were to come to earth seeking the best male specimens for their collection, they might choose these four guys:

Taysom, Langi, Bronson, Kafusi (Corbin)
Taysom, Langi, Bronson, Kafusi (Corbin). Originally tweeted here:

This picture was reposted with a seemingly innocent comment about how great they looked with their beards.

But there was a tang of rebellion in the compliment.

You see, these four men played football for BYU. Part of the Honor Code is that men must be clean-shaven, or at most, wear a mustache. This rule hardly mattered from the 80’s to the early 2000’s– anyone respectable was clean-shaven, so arguing against this rule was tantamount to arguing that you wanted to give the University a bad reputation. While I was there, to me, arguing against “the beard rule” looked like nothing more than asking to be a slouch about your personal hygiene.

Maybe part of that was because the first, and only, time I’ve seen my dad in a beard was when he came home from an extended hunting trip. We were thrilled when the station wagon pulled up to the house. My sisters and I ran out calling, “Daddy!” But I stopped in my tracks, aghast at the man with the giant black bush obscuring the lower half of his face who was hugging my older sister. He smelled bad, too. Shaving was just part of getting back to cleanliness.

But about five years ago, I was writing a scene where a character was growing a beard. I was trying to decide whether it was realistic for him to be handsome under those circumstances. I went to the grocery store and looked around to see if there were any men with beards that weren’t entirely scummy. There weren’t any, until I turned in to the cereal aisle, and way at the end was a fellow wearing a short beard, and he seemed okay. Satisfied that it was possible, I continued writing the scene.

However, now that I’d started looking for beards, I noticed them everywhere, and at an increasing rate. For example, at a Magic the Gathering pre-release event, out of about forty people, the only ones not wearing beards were my four children, me, two other women, and two men. Though I generally don’t mind being the only female in a group, there was this odd sense that the beards were a matter of pride, and not having one was what relegated a person to the “women and children” sphere. It put me in mind of when King David sent messengers to comfort the new king on his father’s death, and the new king shaved half the beard off each messenger’s face. But instead of just going clean-shaven, King David had them live by themselves until their beards grew back, so they could avoid the humiliation of going beardless. That was a culture where manliness was everything, and nothing screamed manliness like having a beard.

Still, in spite of friends telling me how toasty warm their beards kept them in the bitter winter wind, or how proudly they displayed the thick hair on their chins (one even decorated his with braids and Christmas ornaments), I’d guessed that beards were a short fashion trend.

But it’s stayed.

An article about the origins of the modern penchant for beards (warning: the article is PG-13) traced this facial hair trend to the U.S. special ops forces operating in Iraq. The irony was that the soldiers with the most deadly assignments were allowed to wear beards to build rapport with the locals, but the locals soon learned that the U.S. soldiers with the beards were the ones most to be feared. Within the military, being allowed (or required) to grow a beard was a visual statement that you were the best of the best. This feeling came home with the returning soldiers, and has now spread generally.

I thought the article was interesting, but it still just described a fashion choice, right? I mean, it’s just hair. Men can’t really care about it all that much, right?


A few weeks ago, just before sunrise, I was at a film shoot. There was an efficient process to get all the extras ready to go on set. Outside the last trailer, I noticed a bunch of men talking together, not quite upset, but definitely animated. It turned out that all but one of them had just had their beards shaved off. They were talking about how long they’d been growing them, how good they’d looked with them, how strange they felt without them. The one who’d been allowed to keep his was stroking it in a highly pleased way, occasionally throwing out comments about how the others’ beards obviously hadn’t been very good, or they’d have been allowed to keep them. Much later, as the sun was setting and everyone was back in street clothes, the men were still saying how unused they were to being without their beards, and wondering with more immediacy how their family members would react.

So is this simply a fashion trend? Or is it a cultural shift? If the decision to beard, or not to beard, has always had some deeply personal, even primal dimension to it, throwing off the shackles of shaving may really be the outward sign of a deeper cultural rumbling.

A Quick Intro to Football

Football season starts this month. (Finally!)

Lots of people learn football by playing it. The rest of us probably attended our first game as part of a family or school event. When I watched my first games, I knew only that the quarterback should throw the ball to a guy who should outrun everyone else and get in the endzone, and that he should avoid being sacked. But the game is much more fun to watch if you understand even a little bit about the positions and the strategy.

This video is designed to give that little bit: Super-Basic Guide to Football

Disclaimer: To keep it short, I over-simplified. For example, I call all backs “running backs” (except the quarterback). I call all receivers “wide receivers.” I don’t even mention the possibility of only having three defensive linemen up front instead of four. I don’t mention offensive formations, like the “Wishbone” or “I” formation. I skip over why it’s so dangerous for a team to be near its own endzone– not even mentioning the possibility of scoring a safety. I don’t mention penalties, not even the most common ones. Etc., etc., etc. Still, it’s something I wish I’d seen before I watched my first game!

Football positions

Meeting Lloyd Alexander

When I was 10 years old, my teacher introduced me to Taran, Eilonwy, and Gurgi by way of assigning “The Black Cauldron” as class reading. I loved that book, and was thrilled to find two more books by the author, Lloyd Alexander, in our school library. I read “Taran Wanderer” several times, then read “The High King.” Then I found more of his books at our community library. I read the “Westmark” trilogy several times, and afterwards I read “The Book of Three” and “The Castle of Llyr.”

I liked to daydream about visiting Prydain. One of my favorite things to ponder was, if I could bring one thing with me, what would it be? Eventually, I decided I’d take a bag that, if I reached inside, I could pull out a book on any subject. That way, if Coll needed more iron for swords, I could pull out books on the geology of Prydain; or if we were wandering in the forests, I could pull out a book on edible wild plants. Thinking about these characters and places filled a great deal of my inner monologue during those years of my life.

In college, the author himself visited our campus and gave a lecture in the de Jong Concert Hall. He was slight and soft-spoken. At the end, he invited questions. One person asked how to pronounce the characters’ names. He instantly answered, “However you think they should be pronounced.” When pressed to tell us how he, personally, pronounced the names, he hesitantly revealed how he hears them. He said “Eilonwy” in a way so lovely that I wished I’d known it from the start.

Although I couldn’t afford them, I bought hardback copies of two of his books. Then I stood in the long line for signing. I considered what I could say to him, and I decided there was nothing that could express the depths of my respect and gratitude in that brief moment, so I should just give him the books and be satisfied.

When I started to hand him my newly-purchased copy of “The Kestrel,” the guy behind me said to my hero, “Wait, don’t sign that.” Then he said to me, “You can exchange it if it isn’t written in.” When I gave him a confused look, he said, “Are you sure you want that one? It isn’t the first book in the series.”

I mumbled something about how I really liked this one, and then I again offered it to Lloyd Alexander.

He took it from me, and in his gentle voice, he said, “Yes, this one is rather darker.” His tone convinced me that he understood everything.

I’ve heard of people being disappointed when they meet their heroes. But I came away from that encounter with even greater appreciation for the author who provided such rich material for my childhood imagination to work on.

Signed Kestrel

Cheers to the Sloggers

I did track and cross-country in high school. Why? I wanted my letter, you had to do a sport to get it, and those were the only sports with a “No Cuts” policy. You show up and work, you get your letter.

When I came home from my first meet, my parents asked how I did. I told them I came in third. They said “Great!”

I didn’t tell them I was in the slowest heat, there were only three people running it, and I finished half a lap behind the other two girls. My parents terrified me by hinting that they might attend one of my competitions, but I quickly pointed out that track meets lasted three hours or more, I couldn’t be sure when my event would be run, and they had other children with far more pressing needs. Humiliation avoided!

My favorite success was achieving my goal of breaking 21 minutes on the 5K. I finally did it at the last regular meet of my senior year of high school. I came through the chute, and my time was 20:59.

No one cheered. It wasn’t a good enough time for anyone else to suspect how many hours of work over several years it’d taken me to get there, or how important it was to me. But it’s still a favorite memory of mine.

Fast-forward to two nights ago.

I have a practice of going back to all my books and editing them at will. My husband claims this is bad, and that I should keep going forward. We had a conversation like this:

Me: “Artists do this. Degas would go to his friend’s house for dinner, see his own painting on the wall, notice something wrong, grab it away from his protesting friend, take it home and fix it, and bring it back a few weeks later. Then he’d be invited for dinner, notice something else wrong, and take it home again.”

My husband: “Didn’t you tell me his friend had that painting chained to the wall?”

Me: “So?”

My husband: “So Degas had to move on to painting something else. You need to chain your books to the wall.”

Me: “They’re my books, I’m self-published, and I have no readers,” (not precisely true– I have one loyal fan– she bought my latest book about two weeks ago– I haven’t heard anything from her– she must hate it– so it might be precisely true, after all) “and no one is becoming upset with me for leaving a huge empty spot on their dining-room wall.”

My husband: *sigh*

Anyway, for several months I’d been working on a re-write of what was formerly the very, very, very final re-write of “Incubation.” At long last, I got the print and e-book versions of it finished and uploaded. This great feat shall go down in history as having been achieved at just before 2 a.m. Tuesday morning. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Time to celebrate!

Alas, who wants to be woken up in the wee hours of the morning to celebrate the re-editing of a book that was supposedly finished several months ago? (I’ll admit, the cat was happy. She’d been hanging out with me as I worked, and she seemed relieved that I was finally going to my proper spot for the night.) I’d be beyond selfish to go bother everyone with my small victory.

This kind of continued, tough, even tedious work is necessary if I want to have a story I love, but there’s no enchanting beauty in the work, itself.

In all of our lives, anytime we’re doing something worthwhile, what comes with it is tons of slogging through tough stuff. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night, sometimes it’s day after day after day. It’s work that’s absolutely essential, but it doesn’t present itself as something for someone else to cheer about. It’s stuff like changing a newborn baby’s diaper fourteen times a day for a few weeks, while also breast-feeding around the clock, while also recovering from major debilitating surgery, while also taking care of several toddlers. No one’s going to throw you a parade for that, even if it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done and it’s trying you to your very core.

But this work we put in, this tough work that no one sees, that no one celebrates, that no one cheers, is vital. It’s even more important than reaching the end goal.

I mean, obtaining that time on my race was super-sweet. But whether or not we reach whatever goal we’ve set for ourselves, triumphing over the slog is itself a success.

Even more important, there’s One who sees our efforts, and those efforts make our Parent prouder of us than if we hit whatever artificial mark of “success” we might have set for ourselves as a prerequisite for happiness.

For those of you putting in that unappreciated work, remember that what you’re doing is important, even if no one on earth sees it. And remember you always have Someone cheering for you during the slog.

You Can’t be Really Good While Thinking About It

My church has a big gathering twice a year, where everyone within a hundred miles comes to a Sunday meeting. The day before this meeting, there’s a formal training for all the local church leaders.

Well, the lady who’s really good at playing the hymns wasn’t available for that meeting. She asked all the other people who were good, but they weren’t available. She mentioned her problem to someone who knows me just well enough to think I play the piano better than I do, and when she asked me to help her out, I couldn’t refuse her.

Over the next weeks, I worked out the fingering for the hymns and I practiced the prelude songs. That Saturday, I arrived 40 minutes early so I could get used to the grand piano, and also so I’d have enough time to work the nervous icy stiffness out of my fingers by playing my favorite classics to an empty building.

When the conductor arrived, we quickly worked out the tempo he wanted for the songs– quick and upbeat, just how I like it.

The huge chapel filled. Then they opened the overflow.

When it was time for the opening hymn, I played the entire chorus at the correct tempo so the congregation would have ample time to realize we really were going to be singing this fast. I paused to let the conductor start us out. He raised his arms and beat time with sweeping, obvious, expert gestures, and I followed him.

Unfortunately, by the end of the first line, he and I were ahead of everyone else. I started singing while playing, trying to get the people on the stand to match up properly and lead by example, but it was no use. I had to slow down.

Sending a mental apology to the conductor, I worked at keeping it as fast as he wanted without losing the congregation. I was constantly making adjustments as I watched him while I listened to everyone, trying to head off the train wreck that was threatening at every second.

Near the end of the second verse, the person in charge of the meeting leaned over to me, held up four fingers, and mouthed that we were going to change plans and sing more verses than they’d announced. I gave him a quick nod and prepared myself to keep fighting the battle I’d thought was almost over.

Sometime during the last verse, I realized that I hadn’t paid any attention at all to the phrasing, fingering, or even whether I was hitting the correct notes. All those things were happening automatically, and being executed much better than usual, while I had no brain power to spare for considering those issues.

At that instant, my mind went back to worrying about whether I was playing the song correctly. What had, a moment before, been unconsciously running really well, was now hard work requiring great concentration.

It felt odd that when I didn’t think about the technical aspects of what I was doing with my fingers, the song came off better than if I had been. And the moment I recognized that was happening, I was yanked out of that state of mind.

That experience reminded me of a concept that was explained to me in law school, but which I apparently didn’t quite understand.

My negotiations teacher said there were four levels to becoming an expert in anything.

The first level is unconscious incompetent, where you know so little about the skills you need that you don’t realize how awful you are at those skills. It’s like watching a figure skater at the Olympics who effortlessly makes jumps and twirls, and thinking, “Oh, that’s so easy. I could do that.”

The second is conscious incompetent. That’s where you put on ice skates for the first time, fall backwards, and crack your head open.

The third is conscious competent. That’s where you’ve put in the hours of study and practice, and you see that you’re becoming good at this thing.

The last is unconscious competent. I thought this last level meant that if you practice something hard enough, eventually the skill becomes so ingrained that you can do it without thinking about it.

But maybe that isn’t right. Maybe practicing really hard will never get you there. It will carry you to the brink of the finish line, but not across it.

It might be that, after you put in the hours, you need to re-focus on something entirely external. That something might be unity with others; or, if you’re practicing solo, a unity with something higher than yourself. A lack of self-consciousness might be necessary in order to make that connection.

Now, if only a conscious change in focus can keep my fingers from turning into meat popsicles right before a performance…

The Car that Died in Glory

When I met my husband, he owned a red Ford Escort that he’d bought used at an auction, and that he’d nearly totaled a couple of years later. The severe rebuild meant that parts of this car were brand new and parts of it were fading, and the electrical system did sketchy things. One weird electrical issue was with the ignition. I “fixed” that by yanking on the key so hard that we could take one key out and put the other in without turning off the engine, which was useful when one of us was dropping off the other somewhere.

Fast-forward 10 years. The transmission was shot– you could get it up to about 20 mph, but that was it. The estimate to get it fixed was thousands. I said, “Well, I’ll call the junkyard, and see if they’ll take it.” My husband said he’d handle it. I cleaned out the car and found the title.

More than a year passed. Our uptight neighbor complained to me a few times about our having an untitled car sitting on our driveway. I agreed with him that it was trashy and that there was no point to its being there, and then I told him to talk to my husband about it. (The neighbor wouldn’t.) I arranged to get the car towed to a junkyard, but my husband said he wanted to save the money and drive it there himself, as soon as he had the time to make the 50 mile drive at 20 mph.

Come late July, I was out front mowing our lawn. A guy drove past our house, immediately slammed on the brakes, and backed up. He pointed to the red heap of a car, and said, “Does it run?” I yelled back, “Yes, but it only goes 20 because of the transmission.” He yelled, “Want to sell it?”

I shut down the mower and yelled, “YES!!! But my husband is emotionally attached to it. If you can offer him anything, I think I can get him to take it.” I told him when my husband would be home, and begged him to come ready to take it away right then.

The guy showed up at the right time, and I sent my husband out there to negotiate. They immediately settled on $100. The man’s son drove our junker away as my husband wiped the mist from his eyes.

A few days later, the local news was running a story on the county fair’s demolition derby. There was my husband’s escort, tricked out in spray-painted racing stripes, winning round after round. It made it to the finals, when its transmission finally quit for good. They showed the scene of them hauling the dead, battered carcass off the mud track.

My husband and I looked at each other. I didn’t know what to say. Then, with reverence in his voice, he said, “He went out in a blaze of glory.”

I nodded, then gave him a hug.


World Travels of the Potato

In my latest book, people eat food. (Shocking!) These people are in medieval Ireland. Living in pre-Columbian times, they lacked foods native to the Americas, especially corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. I often write at Chick Fil-A, and I can only feel sad at how most of my characters never got to eat a side of french fries dipped in ketchup.

So how did potatoes become associated with Ireland?

By the 1500’s, the Inca (and their predecessors) had developed numerous strains of potatoes, each suited to a particular micro-climate in the Andean mountains. Even today, people grow deep purple potatoes, bright reddish-orange potatoes, yellow potatoes, and white potatoes, with shapes that vary from long and skinny to bulbous.

Conquistadors and merchants brought specimen plants back to parts of Europe. A few survived the trip, and among these was a white, round potato that happened to be perfectly suited to thrive in the soil and climate of Ireland.

Why did so many Irish grow potatoes? The main reason was that the English had taken all the land, and were renting it back to the people at rates which were impossible to pay. Basically, if you worked your buns off for a year, and brought in a harvest of wheat, the moment you got it bagged up the English landlord would come by and say, “Good! That’s exactly what you owe in rent this year!” and carry it off. But potatoes could be left in the field and harvested as needed– making it much more difficult for a landlord to come by and swipe your harvest. (I think Malcolm Gladwell mentioned this idea in a book that argued that rice production led to math skills and business acumen while wheat production led to fatalism. But maybe I heard it somewhere else.) To avoid starvation, the Irish would grow wheat to pay the rent, and grow potatoes to feed their families.

This system was unfair, but at least the Irish didn’t die– until the years that the fungus-like oomycete invaded and killed off the potatoes. Those years, English landlords still came by and took all the wheat the Irish had planted and harvested, even though there were no potatoes for the workers to eat. By the second and third crop failures, there was rampant Irish starvation, even though these same Irish had grown more than enough wheat to feed themselves. The English decided that the way to deal with this problem of all their workers starving to death was to ship them off to America. This massive depopulation of Ireland was a tremendous boon to America, which got cheap labor in the cities, cheap labor on the railroads, and a bunch of citizens more than willing to take a grant of native prairie in exchange for performing the labor to build a permanent residence on it and to turn it into grazing land and farm land.

[Let’s not think too hard about the ironies of Americans that fought off the British in order to avoid being treated the way the British treated its native population (Irish), then turning around and using the displaced native Irish population to establish a firm hold on land that was at the time populated by America’s own native population (American Indians), in order to displace them. (My parents recently got DNA tests that showed, among many other population groups, Irish, English, and native American ancestry; plus, I’m a proud American– the result being that I don’t know which dog in this fight is properly mine.)]

Anyway, this farm land was often perfectly suited to growing those same potatoes that the Irish brought with them when they crossed the Atlantic.

So when you look at an Idaho potato, there’s a strong likelihood that the ancestors of that plant made the trip from the Andes, to Ireland, to North America. That side of french fries encapsulates a huge swath of modern world history.

Finding a New Favorite Band: “Connla”

Last week I took my kids to a concert by “Connla,” a band from northern Ireland. Through some instant karma, we were lucky enough to get floor seats (literally, sitting on our pockets at the band members’ feet). When I realized how close we would be to the performers, I felt a shyness, which feeling intensified when the band came up.

But only a few measures into the first song, “Pilot,” I realized my crossed legs were moving to the rhythm, and I’d already forgotten my reserve. The band had started its magic, and like all the best professional musicians, they were enticing everyone to become part of their spell-casting. They led us through jazzy pieces that felt like easily dancing on a sunlit path through a bright green meadow (“Mighty Makena’s”), dark songs that conjured disturbing history (“Julia”), exciting tunes that made me wish I could lock arms and turn with my fellow audience members (“Drunken Piper”), songs of hope (“Sail On”), and lots of others, tied together with pleasant personal stories that made us laugh or cheer.

Being that close, I witnessed their talent in a way impossible from a seat in the back. Every instantaneous pitch change in the drum was because she precisely positioned her fingers on its underside. The harpist leapt from chord to chord, her fingers perfect for each attack, exactly complimenting the guitarist, whose fingers worked with such rapidity up and down the fretboard that they seemed unconnected to the calm face of their owner. And the pipes and flutes– I would’ve thought their fingers were merely fluttering over their instruments except that those shockingly fast notes were in perfect alignment with each other and all the other instruments. And the lead singer’s voice had a sweetness not usually found in tones so rich and full.

I loved how they played the sudden, quick silences in their music to add a breath of excitement or to signal a change of tempo or style in the song. That kind of precise expression only comes from countless hours of practicing together. (Think of how easy it is for someone singing Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus” to stick an extra “alleluia” into the caesura at the very end. A choir director I know often warns members about not taking unintended solos.)

Though a few of us did take them up on their invitation to give a yell when we felt so inspired, my guess is that we stuffy Americans weren’t as fun of an audience as they might get on a Saturday night in a pub in Armagh. But they wielded their power to make the standing-room-only crowded room of widely varying strangers feel a unity, an enlivening. For that too-short time together, we lived our lives more abundantly.