Category Archives: Personal

Posts of a personal nature–what is happening with me.

Westward in the Pandemic

In July 2020, I rode across the country from Philadelphia to Denver on my motorcycle. I had been planning to move west for more than a year but needed to sell my house in Philadelphia before I could make the change. I found a buyer, and my house went under contract in early March, just before the COVID-19 lockdown. A contract addendum allowed delay during the crisis, but by June, it was clear I had to complete the sale or risk losing money. In order to save the cost of shipping my motorcycle, I decided to ride west. What follows is an account of the journey, compiled from Facebook posts and notes I took during the ride.

July 1

I start my journey from a motel near the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL to aviation and travel buffs) because my house is empty. All my household goods, including my bed, have been sent to storage, even my camping gear. The air, at 7:30 AM, feels clammy, a weird combination of cool and very humid. But the sky is stunning, about fifty percent puffy clouds and fifty percent blue. Most of the clouds look like cotton balls, but a few heavier wads are dark with unshed moisture. As it turns out, I will thread the needle between potential storms all day and never get more than a few droplets on my windscreen.

It feels strange traveling the familiar route from Philadelphia to Altoona knowing I may never again ride in Pennsylvania. I chose to stop in Altoona because I wanted to revisit a few of my favorite train-watching locations: the Horseshoe Curve, the Gallitzin tunnels, and the train-watching platform at Cresson, PA. I have spent blissful hours taking photos of trains in these locations. Not a single locomotive appears at either the curve or the tunnels, but a mile-long consist of shipping containers rolls past the platform at Cresson as I get there.

My reluctance to leave Pennsylvania without train watching means a very long day in the saddle—nearly 12 hours, by the time I reach Wheeling, West Virginia. I take a shower, order dinner from a local Chinese restaurant, and go to bed. Make note, when ordering via Grubhub on the road, don’t forget to uncheck the box marked Save the Planet, which tells the restaurant not to pack utensils or napkins. Fortunately, the hotel staff in Wheeling saved me from slurping the beef and eggplant from the container like a hungry dog.

July 2

This morning, my route took me southwest along the Ohio River, down to Parkersburg, then west on Highway 50 to Chillicothe, Ohio. From there, I took faster roads to Bloomington, Indiana, because the mileage was a bit long.

Stopped by the side of the Ohio River, near Marietta, Ohio.

In some dystopian future, when computers decide to rebel and dispose of the irrational and irritating humans that created them, my GPS will undoubtedly be an eager recruit. My habit, on motorcycle journeys, is to decide each evening where I want to stay the next night. I pick my route, then go online to make a reservation. However, I’m too lazy to program all the curvy, indirect, and out-of-the-way roads I want to take into my GPS, so I just program the GPS with my final destination. Then I proceed to ignore all the device’s instructions until the end of the day when I’m tired, and I reluctantly allow the GPS guide me through the remaining turns to my hotel for the night. The advantage of this approach that I can see the effect on my ETA of every decision I make. The disadvantage is that I spend the day ignoring my GPS’s frantic attempts to get me to make a u-turn or go around the block. Needless to say, I ride with the voice prompts off. If on some future ride a GPS I’ve driven mad guides me off a cliff, I have to think there are worse ways to go.

Having arrived in Bloomington, I stupidly order enough pizza for two meals from the local place recommended by the clerk at the front desk. He’s right about the pizza; the handmade crust is particularly spectacular. However, my habit of spreading the cost of delivery across multiple meals makes little sense on a solo motorcycle trip. On the other hand, the hotel restaurant and bar are closed due to the pandemic, so maybe having some cold pizza for breakfast isn’t bad. If you’re ever in Bloomington and have a craving for pizza, definitely look up Aver’s Gourmet Pizza.

July 3

The portion of Highway 46 from Bloomington to Interstate 70 is verdant and hilly. After leaving Indiana, I cross the great state of Illinois on Interstate 70, as it is humid and nearly 90 degrees, and I want to leave the flat farmland behind as soon as possible. Mesh riding gear can only do so much to combat the heat.

I’d hoped to get a picture of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. But the traffic is heavy when I arrive at the Gateway to the West, and my GPS screen is tough to read in the glare from the bright morning sun. Just as I reach the bridge’s approaches, I fall among a gang of Harley-Davidson riders who were traveling in the same direction. To be honest, I startle them slightly by tucking neatly into the middle of their group when I realize that I need to be in their lane at the last minute. Most of the group doesn’t seem to mind, and I respond to more than one friendly wave.

Waving, of course, is a thing with motorcyclists. I have perfected a languid single finger technique based upon God’s figure bestowing the gift of life on Adam as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I proceed serenely down the road, blessing my fraternal brothers and sisters on two wheels.

Just as we cross over the Mississippi, one of the Harley gang behind me decides he’s had enough of being separated from his pals, and he passes me on the right, in the same lane. Good thing I don’t drift right at that moment. Given the distractions of the traffic and GPS, I barely catch a glimpse of the muddy water below and the Gateway Arch on the far bank. Later, I calculate that it was my 22nd time crossing the great river—not including the times I’ve flown above it.

I arrive at my lodgings in Rolla, Missouri, early, avoiding the thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon, and even have time for a relaxing nap before dinner.

July 4

My Independence Day starts before dawn when I stumble out to the parking lot to load the saddle and tail bags on my Kawasaki Versys 650. Once fortified with coffee, I love to ride in the early morning. There is little traffic, the air is fresh, and I swear it even smells sweeter. It’s also the best time of day to see wildlife. There is fog in the clefts between the Missouri hills when I leave Rolla. Leaving the interstate, I turn north on Highway 7 and spy a pair of spotted fawns sporting in the tall grass beside the road. A few miles on, an enormous, bald-headed Turkey Vulture picks at a dead Armadillo. A bright red Cardinal swoops past. Later, I avoid an intrepid—or possibly suicidal—snapping turtle in the middle of the highway. He responds to my approach by retracting his head and limbs into his shell. I stop a few miles later to snap a picture of a particularly scenic creek and see more turtles sunning themselves on a submerged tree branch.

Creek bed on Highway 7, between I44 and Richland, Missouri.

Leaving Missouri, I pause in Fort Scott, Kansas, for a water break. I take a picture of the historic fort in the center of town. By 1853, the fort had been abandoned, but the Union Army reactivated it again to play a significant role in the Civil War.

Fort Scott

Back on the road, I pass through Butler County, a region famous for the beef cattle that are driven there to be fattened on the lush prairie grass, before reaching my destination for the night at Hutchinson, Kansas.

West of Fort Scott, Kansas.

July 5

After watching an excellent display of municipal fireworks from my 4th Floor motel window, I go to bed early, planning a dawn start for Colorado. Rising with the sun, I hit the road about 7:20 AM, only to find myself slowed to a crawl by dense morning fog. The moist air condenses water on my helmet visor faster than I can wipe it away, forcing me to ride with the shield raised. I creep on for 90 minutes, my frustration relieved only by the sight of a wild turkey and jackrabbits foraging beside the road. When the sun finally begins to warm my back, I am more than ready to hit the interstate. Afternoon thunderstorms are predicted for my destination of Colorado Springs, so I decide on a quick blast across Kansas. The planning pays off because the storms arrive at my motel near the Air Force Academy shortly after I do.

July 6

My first day in Colorado offers a ride I’ll remember forever: a blue sky dotted with only enough clouds to keep it interesting, a comfortable temperature, and spectacular mountain views, starting with Pikes Peak. I have traveled to Colorado for this. My route takes me west on Highway 24 to Woodland Park, where I stop for a cup of coffee and a bagel sandwich, and north on Route 77 (Tarryall Road), which I follow almost 50 miles to Jefferson, Colorado. Route 77 has to be one of the prettiest roads I have ever ridden. It passes by China Wall, a particularly spectacular peak of yellow and red rock rising above slopes of green pine, and a popular hiking destination, judging by the parking area where I stop to take pictures.

Along Route 77, between Lake George and Jefferson, Colorado.

Near Jefferson, Colorado.

From Jefferson, I turn west on Highway 285 and follow it to Highway 9. Turning north, I pass through Alma, Colorado, which at 10,578 feet, advertises itself as the highest elevation incorporated municipality in the United States. From there, I continued to the summit of Hoosier Pass, elevation 11,539 feet. Stopping for a picture, I am pleased to note that I do not suffer from altitude sickness. I remember the advice of an old fellow with whom I spoke in eastern Ohio, during a water stop. Upon hearing of my destination of Denver, he recommended that I purchase some oxygen. People get altitude sickness there, he said. You should buy oxygen. I wasn’t sure whether he expected me to carry a green bottle of compressed gas on the bike? In any case, I politely thanked him for his advice before continuing on my way.

Hoosier Pass, elevation 11,539 feet.

From the summit, my route took me down past the Breckenridge Ski Resort, and then east on my old friend, Interstate 70, over Loveland Pass. Just past Idaho Springs, I cut north on the Central City Parkway. I wanted to see the gambling town of Central City, which seems to be the Atlantic City of the West. Due to the pandemic, it seemed more ghost town than gambling haven.

Heading east again, I finish my ride with a lovely drop through Clear Creek Canyon, on Highway 6, arriving in Golden Colorado just as the day becomes hot.

On this trip, I covered 2,281 miles in six days, for an average of 380 miles per day, and passed through eight states.

On Traveling During the Coronavirus Pandemic

I wouldn’t have taken the journey during the COVID-19 pandemic if my house hadn’t already been under contract when the lockdowns started. Ultimately, I could not afford to do otherwise. On the way, I was concerned to see how inconsistently the country coped with the virus. Mask usage was spotty in every state. In some towns, restaurants were open. In others, establishments offered only takeout and delivery. Most motel staff wore masks, but many customers did not. I ate in my room at night, and I tried to wear a mask consistently when in public, but I’m no paragon. I forgot at least once. During the day, I just kept my helmet on!

A DIY Media Center for $145

Over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, I worked on a DIY project for my home. The idea was to create a Linux-based media center on a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny but remarkably powerful computer on a circuit board designed by the good folks at the Raspberry Pi Foundation (http://www.raspberrypi.org). It can run a number of different operating systems, including various Linux-based distributions and a stripped-down version of Windows 10. The original idea behind the Raspberry Pi was to create a tool that educators could use to teach young people about computers and programming languages. The official, supported, Raspbian OS is based on the Debian Jessie Linux distribution and comes with educational games, math tools, programming environments, and other software packages for children. But the low-cost computer (about $35 on Amazon) has since proved extremely popular with the DIY crowd, who have used the thing to power everything from robots, to automatic plant waterers, to magic mirrors. Search the web for “Raspberry Pi projects” and you’ll find long lists of ideas, as well as fully developed projects that people have already created using the tiny computer.

I can’t take credit for the media center idea. Many intrepid enthusiasts have been there before me and passed down their experiences in a plethora of web pages, blog posts, and YouTube videos. Moreover, I’m indebted to the many programmers and open source enthusiasts who continue to contribute their time and skills to the Kodi (https://kodi.tv/) and OSMC (https://osmc.tv/) open source projects for the software to make this work. Nevertheless, I had to solve enough problems to get the everything working in my network environment and with my particular digital resources to make the project both engaging and fun.

The end result is a pleasing graphical application that displays on my television and offers a single interface to access and organize my entire music collection, all my collected videos, my digital photographs, and streaming media from various online sources. I orchestrate it all from a small, wireless, bluetooth keyboard or an iPhone application.

The hardware and software components I purchased to create this project are listed below:

CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Kit with Clear Case and 2.5A Power Supply – $49.99
SanDisk Ultra 64GB microSDXC UHS-I Card with Adapter (you could do fine with a smaller one) – $14.99
Logitech K380 Multi-Device Bluetooth Keyboard – $24.95
Western Digital My Passport Ultra 1TB External USB 3.0/2.0 Portable Hard Drive – $49.95

MPEG-2 license key – £2.00 GBP (from the Raspberry Pi Foundation)
VC-1 license key – £2.00 GBP (from the Raspberry Pi Foundation)

Total cost of project: $144.88

Dr. Anonymous

I’m at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania tonight to hear about Dr. Anonymous—John Fryer—who famously spoke out against the psychological profession’s classification of homosexuality as pathology at the American Psychological Association in 1972. You can find out more at the HSP website.

Launch day for Billy Goat Stats, Second in the DIY Family Series

Today is launch day for Billy Goat Stats, the second in my DIY Family series after Music Box. I’ve described Billy Goat Stats in detail elsewhere, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to write about the DIY Family series as a whole.

Billy Goat Stats

As a gay man, I’ve long heard stories from friends and acquaintances about impossible expectations, abuse, and heartbreak—the trauma of an oppressed minority. But I’ve also seen the other side of that coin: men and women whose unconventional relationships have turned into long-term commitments, former lovers whose ongoing friendships glow with the patina of shared experience, and men whose families have redefined their qualifications for membership out of compassion or respect for freedom. These people have forged new families from the hot steel of rejection. Their battles against social convention, religious dogma, and the unfair constraints of traditional gender roles have tempered them into extraordinary people. These are the people I love, and the people I have tried to write about.

Music BoxIn Music Box, compassion drives two older men to help a younger one who is related, not by blood, but by a mutual love of music. In Billy Goat Stats, a young man finds that a successful basketball season requires that he nourish bonds between people of very different backgrounds and experience.

I have more stories to write, but I’m sure you have your own. I’d love to hear about them.

On Gay Marriage: It’s Time to Learn from our Past

This is not a political blog. I normally limit my topics to writing or publishing. My purpose is to document my experiences as a writer, and to offer a window into my life for readers who may want to know more about me. However, some of what I write is M/M romance. As such, my choice to speak publicly about my writing is inescapably political.

For the past two days, I have been tracking the arguments in the US Supreme Court regarding California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As a gay man, my feelings on the subject are strong. They are also personal and perhaps outside the scope of this blog, but I think a statement of my beliefs at this historic moment is appropriate.

I support the right of adults to marry and to raise children. Race, religion, sexual preference, or gender do not enter into it. I believe that marriage is, first and foremost, a declaration of commitment to a shared life: shared goals, shared resources, and shared experiences. I believe that marriage requires communication, strengthens human ties, and teaches community-building skills. As such, I believe marriage to be a social good, which should be encouraged and supported by the state for all persons who can be convinced to embrace it. I think that DOMA and Proposition 8 are wrong, not only because they create a class of persons for the purpose of discriminating against them, but also because they don’t serve the interest of the country or its citizens. Marriage is responsible behavior. It does not make sense to me to engage in law-making for the purpose of discriminating against a group of citizens who merely wish to engage in responsible behavior.

Our founding fathers wisely created a political system insulated from religion. They understood that organized religion is inherently exclusionary. Its fundamental proposition is that we true believers are right, and you non-believers and heretics are wrong. Yet we live in a world of diverse religions and beliefs. Historically, when we have tried to put religious beliefs into law, our actions have inevitably resulted in oppression of non-believers, often in the most brutal and inhuman of ways.

I believe that most opposition to gay marriage in this country is religiously motivated, and that we are wise to keep this motive out of the statehouse. In my lifetime, our country has made great strides in lessening the misery caused by its discriminatory laws and oppression of minorities. I propose that we should learn from our past, and treat all citizens with dignity, regardless of their sexual preferences, and afford them the equal protection and application of the law. DOMA and Proposition 8 should go.

My Mother has Cancer

Five weeks ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV (Metastatic) Breast Cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the cancer was well advanced, even for Stage IV. Things my mother has said to me directly and things that she has said to other family members suggest that she has known for some time (perhaps years) that she was ill. However, she chose to treat her illness with herbal preparations and other alternative approaches. She did not visit an MD until she was having difficulty breathing and one of her arms had swollen to three times its normal size. She went so far as to cancel her Medicare Part B insurance some months ago. She has no other insurance, apart from government-provided Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s hard to assess my mother’s reasons for refusing medical treatment until it was too late for radiation or chemotherapy to be effective. She says she has lived a full live and that she’s not sorry to go. She does not show any sign that her comforting beliefs in alternative medicine, reincarnation, and spirit guides have waned in the face of her illness. On the other hand, she’s not had a long-term intimate relationship since she divorced my father in 1967. Perhaps fear of living alone and growing progressively more feeble due to illness motivated her to find a way to go quickly. Perhaps she was in denial about the severity of what was happening to her. Perhaps she she really believed that herbs would cure her cancer.

My own feelings are mixed. I don’t share her belief system, so it’s hard not to dismiss her ideas about reincarnation and spirit guides as wishful thinking. I know this: I’m not ready to lose my mother. I wish she had gotten effective medical treatment sooner. Now all I can do is tell her that I love her and wait.

Update: my mother passed away December 23, 2011. She was lucid and speaking to the staff of the nursing home until shortly before she died.

Prosthetic Legs, Plain Speech, and a Borrowed Suit

Odd questions arise when you’re writing historical fiction. What kind of prosthetic limbs were available to World War I veterans in 1919? Of what were they constructed and what did they look like? That was one set of questions I had to answer when I was writing my second novel, The Door Behind Us (due out in a month or so.) The novel is set mostly in 1919 and 1920. To get a feel for the time and locations that figure in the novel, I visited libraries, read historical documents, bought one obscure and expensive privately printed account of the operations of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and spent a lot of time searching the web.

It turns out that prosthetic limbs were still crude in 1919. They were heavy compared to the limbs available today and not particularly flexible. One manufacturer of products that would have been available to an amputee in 1919 was the Ohio Willow Wood Company of Mt. Sterling, Ohio. They still manufacture prosthetic limbs today. As the name suggests, they made legs out willow wood. Willow, it turns out, is light, resistant to cracking, and even grained. (It also looks good, a factor which figures in my story.) Better options for amputees didn’t really begin to appear until World War II.

Other questions I had to answer for The Door Behind Us had to do with Quaker plain speech. In 1919, many Quakers still used plain speech, which involves the use of the singular (familiar) form of address as opposed to the plural (formal), and substitutes words like thee and thine for you and yours.  For Quakers, the use of plain speech is a testimony, a way of demonstrating one’s beliefs with one’s actions, and a part of the testimony of simplicity. One of my characters in The Door Behind Us is a Quaker. He drives an ambulance for the American Friends Ambulance Unit, a fictional organization based on the real-life Friends Ambulance Unit, which operated in France during the Great War. His father uses the plain speech.

My fascination with this dialect comes from my own experience listening to my grandmother’s plain speech as a child. I thought it exotic and beautiful. I regret that it is rarely heard anymore, even among the Quakers.

In researching the Friends Ambulance Unit, I ran across an interesting anecdote. In 1947, the Quakers, as represented by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the British Friends Service Council, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their service and efforts to promote peace. The award was accepted by Henry Cadbury, a relative of the chocolate-manufacturing Cadburys. Perhaps not surprisingly for a Quaker raised in the tradition of the testimony of simplicity, Cadbury did not own a long-tailed coat appropriate for the award ceremony. He appeared in a suit borrowed from an AFSC warehouse, which had been collected in a charity drive for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.

Coffee Shops and the Inner Child

There are days when I cannot bear to write at home. Part of the problem is that I am, during the day, a telecommuter. My home is my office is my writing studio is my home. When I sit down to write, I have usually just finished a day of work. I’m still chewing the last bite of dinner and my inner dialog is going something like this:

Inner Child: “I’m tired. Nobody cares if we write every day. They won’t know anyway. Why not take a day off and watch some television or read that new story from Josh Lanyon?”

Adult: “You’re always tired after work. Once that pizza kicks in, we’ll be fine.”

Inner Child: “I don’t even know what’s supposed to happen next.”

Adult: “That’s never stopped us before.”

Inner Child: “I want something sweet. Put something in our mouth.”

Adult: “Oh, for God’s sake!”

Inner Child: “I’ve heard there are other people in the world. Let’s go find them. Maybe they’ll worship us.”

This is the point at which I stuff my computer into a pack and walk to one of the local coffee shops. The change of location relieves my stir-craziness. An herbal tea or non-fat latte pacifies the inner cookie monster. People watching stimulates my imagination. I can write. The terror of the blank page passes.

There used to be six coffee shops within walking distance of my home: two from a national chain, two from regional chains, one from a Philadelphia chain, and one independent. All but one offered free internet access. The independent, Crossroads, is a lovely converted former shoe store with a two-story atrium, skylights, a narrow mezzanine, and dark hardwood shelving. I have written many thousands of words there. Unfortunately, two of the local shops have closed in the past few months.

Times are hard. The remaining shops are filled with people working on their computers like me, a cup at hand to show they’ve paid their rent. I am careful to purchase something every few hours. I resent the people who stay all day after purchasing a single tall coffee. They’re the same ones who pull out bananas and yogurt they haven’t purchased from the shop at lunch time. (I’ve never actually seen anyone thrown out for this inconsiderate behavior, but I’d not blame the business owner who did.) I know that money is an issue for many of the students and job-seekers I see in the coffee shops, but coffee shops are businesses. They have leases and employees to pay. That free internet service isn’t free. I worry that more shops will close if too many people take unfair advantage.

Pardon me, I have to get another latte. I’m not ready to go home yet.

Queries and Covers

Looking for a literary agent is a lot like looking for a job. In both cases, your task is to create a short, compelling document that will persuade your reader to look at a longer one. If you want an agent to represent your novel, you must write a single page letter in which you have about a paragraph to describe your novel and about a paragraph to describe yourself. Add a few sentences of introduction and a closing and you are done. Sounds easy? It’s not. The full synopsis of my novel, Fly Up into the Night Air, is three and one half pages, and covers only the essential points of plot and character development. In order to boil that down into a paragraph, a great deal must be left out. What are the most essential, most compelling parts of the story? For many writers it can take a little distance before the answer to that question is clear. Writers speak of the narrative hook: the action, idea, or description at the beginning of a story that grabs the reader’s interest and won’t allow him to put the book down. Your goal in a query letter is make the prospective agent want to read your novel. But since you must also convey some specific information about the novel (genre, length, etc.), you generally have only a few sentences to set the hook. Your fly must be very bright and shiny, indeed, to land the fish.

Similarly, when you are looking for a job, your task is to write a cover letter that will get your prospective employer to look at your résumé. Once again, you are likely to have only a very few words in which to describe what it is about you that is so compelling that the prospective employer should select your résumé from among the many she has received for a closer examination. Add to that the difficulty most of us have in speaking about ourselves without sounding either vain or dry to the point of barrenness, and you have another difficult writing job.

I’m supposed to be working on queries and covers, right now. The blog’s more fun.