In Which the Gecko Barks About Books

A Cub Scout Reading and Writing Merit Badge. I was never a scout -- or a Weblo *snigger* -- but if I was, I would have had this badge.A Life Less Ordinary? Check. But It’s Books and Writing That Float My Boat

I suppose I have lead a life less ordinary – not a fantastic life, or one worthy of particular note, no — not the stuff of books. But I’ve taken roads less traveled that have taken me far away from my MidWestern, suburban American roots. Such is the life of a journalist with a penchant for wanderlust, I suppose.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, when left to my own devices, two of the things I like to do are read books and write about books, which one can do anywhere. Perhaps I should have minored in journalism and majored in English back in college — fewer reporter’s notebooks and more books.

But then it’s journalism that set me on those Bobby Frost paths less traveled (a metaphor I’ve employed befor). I sometimes wonder if it was my experiences as a journalist that gave me wanderlust, or was it an inherently restless nature that was subsequently fed/exacerbated by writing gigs? I suspect the latter. Maybe it was a book that I read as an impressionable child.

*cough* Tolkien *cough*

In any event I do know – unless we assume the depressing idea of fate and predestination – that were it not for my travel experiences as a journalist — namely a month spent in China — I doubt I would have ever pursued a career in teaching ESL as a means of living abroad. Whether that continues to develop into some sort of second career, or not, remains to be seen. But if it does, it will always be an offshoot of my first career in a very direct way.

I need to find a faux pen and ink drawing of a keyboard; I think that would be a more apt symbol than ye olde feathered quill and ink. But I suppose it’s irrelevant at this point; I do what I do. And lately, in my free time, as the quadriceps tendon snafu settles down, that’s been reading and writing (but no arithmetic) — reading books and writing about books.

I don’t want to repeat myself too much though; let it suffice to say that Barking Book Reviews has gotten a lot of attention from me as of late; most recently it was to review the latest from one of my favorites: The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, by Caitlín R. Kiernan.

Consequently, Barking Book Reviews has been getting some interesting attention from without, which you can read about on my quote-unquote professional site.

As I note there, where will it lead, if anywhere? And to what end? I don’t know. But here’s to hoping it continues to be unexpected and a bit out of the ordinary.

Farewell to Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily Founder, Editor

author and Arts & Letters Daily founder and editor Denis DuttonI just learned today that the founder of Arts & Letters Daily, Denis Dutton, died December 28. I confess I didn’t know who he was until after I spied “Denis Dutton, founder of ‘Arts & Letters Daily,’ has died” on Boing Boing. But I have been a long-time reader of Arts & Letters Daily.

Until I moved abroad at the beginning of this year, I usually consumed A&L Daily just that, daily, along with my cubanos at my local coffee shop, after I had checked my email and the news headlines. I can’t remember how I discovered A&L at first, but was pleasantly surprised to find it: a website resembling a newspaper broadsheet from a couple centuries ago, with links to interesting, thought-provoking articles covering all aspects of art, culture and politics.

Something other than porn, Matt Drudge, Gawker, and Lolcats. No way!

I never really gave much thought to operated it. By the time I discovered it – apparently Dutton started it in 1998 – it was owned by the Chronicle of Higher Education; I always just assumed it was some eggheads there that operated A&L Daily. Dutton continued to run A&L Daily after the Chronicle purchased it in 2002, hand-picking all the linked content, and writing the headline links and blurbs that appeared on the site – apparently right on up to the moment he died of cancer a few days ago.

I was surprised to learn that A&L Daily – such an astute observer and aggregator of … well, arts and letters, of all things on the Internet, that I was surprised to learn that it was founded and run by a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand who is, or rather was, 24 years my senior. How cool is that? As I naturally ponder age and death at this time of year, it is comforting to learn that age doesn’t have to equal irrelevancy.

But then, as I’m learning from the New Yorker and other sources, Denis Dutton was a pretty hip old guy. As I ponder the future and what I want to do in it, I’ll take his life as an inspiration.

Just last year he published a book that attempts to elucidate a Darwinian theory of art – an apt subject for a professor of philosophy and the curator of Arts & Letters Daily. I think The Art Instinct will be the next book to be added to my Kindle.

Wherever you now dwell, Mr. Dutton, you have my thanks, for entertaining me with A&L Daily, and now for the inspiration. Godspeed.

As for Arts and Letters Daily, his Dutton’s colleagues at the Chronicle of Higher Education have pledged to carry on. While I have faith, of course it won’t be quite the same, I’m sure, without Dutton behind the keyboard.

Back to Being a Freelance Writer (Slacker). It’s Deja-Vu All Over Again … in Viet Nam

Water Cooler Fenders Adorn the Giant BowerySo, after much lifestyle and career experimentation, I seem to be reverting to form. To wit: I’m freelance writing again, and I have found a regular part-time gig putting my writing and editing skills to work, as well as my WordPress and search engine optimization (SEO) skills. The pay isn’t great, but it’s more than adequate to live on and save a wee bit here in Viet Nam, and will let me concentrate on other endeavors that are more alluring but not as conducive to income, at least in the short term.

I kind of feel like I just picked back up many of the threads of my former life that I left behind 11 months ago – only those threads stretch across a hemisphere. This is more or less where I left off when I got rid of all my stuff and hauled ass at the beginning of the year. I even stay up late and sleep late, just like the good old slacker days, although I actually need to because of one caveat for my current gig: I need to work North American hours, so as to be available in real time, which I don’t mind at all. Typically I go to bed around 4:30 a.m. and get up anytime between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. — right where I left off.

During the day I do what I do best – run around on my Giant Bowery, run errands, goof off and/or write while hanging around in a coffee shop. Slacker is as slacker does.

Today I actually spent the daylight hours (the few that I have) making some bike-punk alterations to my new bike and adding some fenders because the dry season is apparently never, ever going to arrive. This involved trips to a hardware store for zip ties and two local bike shops in search of old, used tubes. What kind of bike shop sells bikes but doesn’t sell tires or tubes? The kind down the street from me in Biên Hòa; I’m still trying to figure this one out from a cultural standpoint. In the end I bought new tubes from another bike shop farther down the street (trying to convey that I wanted old, worn-out tubes was too much for my nascent Vietnamese and well-thumbed dictionary).

Of course it didn’t actually rain today, for the first time in seemingly a million years. SouthEast Asia, you have me personally, Jeff Chappell – that’s two “p’s” and two “l’s” – to thank for single-handedly ushering in the dry season. You’re welcome.

Warning: Bike Nerdery Ahead. Proceed with Caution or Skip to the Next Subhead

I actually bought add-on fenders at a bike shop in Sai Gon (of course, the Australian-owned bike shop I go to down there was closed for renovations), as well as a cheap floor pump (this after asking at every bike shop in Biên Hòa). The pump barely gets an adequate amount of air into the tires, and I knew the fenders were likely going to need some Irish engineering in order to be mounted, but beggars can’t be choosers.

In the end, the front fender was a no go; the bolt used to attach it to the fork was too big, and the fender’s shape didn’t lend itself to a down-tube mounting with zip ties. The rear one I manged to mount after using the big-ass bolt from the front fender (it seems my 27.3mm seat post was too wide for the mounting bracket otherwise). I added an extension made out of a plastic drinking bottle (a water-cooler-sized one), however, to adequately cover the 700cc wheel.

I should note that I also used the two smaller bolts from the front-fender mounting bracket to attach said extension – so my purchase of the front fender was not in vain. I also used a piece of this water-cooler plastic to fashion a down-tube fender in the old-school way: zip-ties, holes and a couple pieces of cut-up tube to protect the frame’s paint.

No more getting caught in the rain and riding home with road-grit and grime up and down my backside – swamp ass, as I recall, is the term used in cycling circles — not to mention plastered all over my face. Of course, it won’t rain again until next June, now, but that’s fine. Either way, I win.

When I get around to wandering home, though, I’m going to see if I can lay hands on a pair of these Crud fenders made for road bikes. Sweet sickness, that.

Also, since I had the materials and tools lying around, I modified my Converse sneakers and converted them to slip-ons, replacing the shoelaces with long pieces of inner tube. How cool is that? Pretty comfy, too, not to mention convenient. Slacker is as slacker does.

Go to Instructables and you too can do this; it is pretty straightforward and my props to the dude who posted it over there. And it’s a good way to recycle an old tube.

You Can Take the Slacker Out of the Coffee Shop, but He’ll Just Find Another One (with Wi-Fi)

I’ve actually had a lot of topics I’ve wanted to discourse on here lately, but I’ve been preoccupied with creating yet another Website; I figure since I’m going to pursue freelance writing for the foreseeable future, I should separate out the personal blog from the professional stuff – resume and clips and whatnot. Plus, I’ve decided I need a more professional-looking place to repost some clips that are no longer found on Teh Intertubes.

Thus, the Gecko’s bark will soon get it’s own lil’ domain name, while will transform into something else yet again. I figure this is a good way to show off my mad WordPress skills, too; it’s amazing how many freelance writing gigs want experience with WordPress these days. Mark III will look very different from the Gecko’s Bark – which is kind of the idea.

Actually, while it’s a lot of work doing this (mostly getting all my old clips into the database and formatted correctly is what’s taking up the bulk of it – the “content” in today’s vernacular), it’s been fun – but then I’m both Web geek and writing nerd.

So what happened to teaching? It looks like that’s a no-go, at this point. I did have a private tutoring gig lined up, but when I factored in the commute time and lesson planning time, it just didn’t seem worth it. Better to put that time towards doing what I want to be doing.

While there were times that I really enjoyed teaching, at least certain aspects of it, I think at this point it’s safe to say that I tried it on for size, but it just didn’t fit. I like children, but I don’t want to teach a classroom full of them. I don’t have the skill set, and don’t want to put the time and the effort to acquire that skill set. I didn’t enjoy it that much. Even teaching adults – with the exception of the more advanced students – I simply don’t have it.

So, like I said at the beginning of this post before I got off on my bike nerdery, I’ve come full circle. It’s kind of ironic, because many people have remarked over the years – bear in mind I’ve been telecommuting in one capacity or another since 2001 – that I could do what I do anywhere in the world, as long as I had an Internet connection. Well, it’s not quite that simple but yeah, I can. I am.

I think that’s part of the teaching failure as well. It required just a little too much structure – and rightfully so – than I am capable of dealing with and providing, at this point in my game. I’m used to being fairly autonomous, working odd hours as it suits, etc. I made things work in Thailand, but I wasn’t happy – and back here in Viet Nam, as I’ve remarked before, the private language school was a much better situation, but at the end of the day, I still felt “meh” toward teaching there, once I had started.

Queue the Doogie Howser Closing Theme

Doogie Howser: Doctor, Proto BloggerSo what have I learned? Here’s some neat bullet points for your edification:

  • You don’t have to stick with what you know when you pursue a life/career change – but it helps to have a fallback/failsafe to something you know and you’re good at – and enjoy, at least to some degree.
  • If you’re a cycling nerd of some description, and you’re picking up stakes to a developing country, unless you’ve got money to burn, ship your bike over or bring it with you on the plane. Yeah, it will cost you, but the cost of finding the kind of bike to fit your rather specialized needs and tastes – in both dollars and frustration – as well as the gear that goes along with the cycling life, will add up to much more. Trust me on this one.
  • Same as above, but instead of “cycling nerd,” insert “gaming nerd,” and instead of “bike,” insert “gaming rig.” Everything here is cheap, yes – except for Western-style road bikes and leading-edge computer parts. Whatever you do, check out prices and import fees. I paid double of what my current ride would have cost me in the United States, because of Viet Nam’s import laws (and no, I don’t blame Viet Nam, it is a developing country after all). It looks like I will pay more if I buy/build a computer here, too, compared to what the same computer/parts would cost back home in the United States.
  • Once you’ve tasted freedom, it’s difficult to go back to the pen.

Eh, live and learn. I’m still new to this expat thing. While traveling abroad changes you for the better, I guess I didn’t realize that in many fundamental ways, I wouldn’t stop being me and should have taken that into account while planning out this open-ended escapade.

While foreign lands and cultures provide endless distractions, at the end of the day, I’m still several varieties of nerd and geek. Faced with the option of learning to ride a motorbike, always taking public transportation and taxis, or bombing around on a bicycle – I’ll opt for the bicycle. After 11 months away, I should have known that I’d be jonesing for video games – both console and PC/online.

But I can’t complain. In retrospect, 11 months ago the only thing I was really eager to change about my life was the fact that I wasn’t traveling/living abroad. So, problem solved, in that regard. I’m still a telecommuting, freelancing, coffee-shop lounging slacker – I’m just doing it now in an exotic locale that is also dirt cheap. Excelsior!

I’ve got the bike replaced, got the freelance gigs lined up, now I need to start thinking about a nerd-gasmic computer. As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon would say, thank my various Gods that I didn’t sell my camera equipment – I’d have to be replacing that, too. Speaking of which – camera equipment would segue beautifully into another anecdote about expat life – the $200 flash bracket — but I’ll save that for later.

Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin. Or, Dammit, Jim, I’m a Teacher, Not a Clown!

"Attn. Jeff Chappell: give it up already ... So, I think the writing is on the wall – hence the post title – with regard to my nascent teaching career. After leaving a Thai public school one month ahead of the end of a semester-long contract to come back to Viet Nam to teach at a private language school, said school has handed me my walking papers after less than two months. D’oh! Apparently I’m just not cut out for teaching young learners – which seasoned TEFL teachers both here and in Thailand tell me means entertaining – as well as adults who are new to English study (damn n00bs). In fact the only students that didn’t complain about the difficulty of my classes were advanced learners; from them I even managed to garner praise, I’m told.

One might be inclined to say that I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet – the Thai school didn’t want me to leave, and I had established a good rapport with my first graders (I miss the little buggers). But I felt relief more than anything else when I got news of the termination – via email at 11 p.m. after no prior indication that there was any problems (would have hoped for a little more class from a fellow Yank; alas, no), but that’s another story. That feeling of being awash in relief, I believe, is the impetus for the metaphorical hand writing that appeared on my Bien Hoa hotel room wall that night, rather than my abilities – or lack thereof – as a nubert teacher.

I had every intention of trying on teaching as a career change and not just a means to an end when I first came to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the year. But I think it’s clear now that teaching young learners – to use the vernacular of the industry – and new students is clearly not my thing. Furthermore, I don’t think I have the inclination to make it my thing; I just don’t want to do it. I made things work with my Thai first graders, but it was grueling and hard work to establish that rapport and figure out how to teach them in a meaningful way, and I don’t want to make a career out of that – Hell no. I left Thailand to get away from that. When I had my first class of Vietnamese kids – granted much smaller than a Thai public school class, but just as unruly – I realized I was in for more of the same, and in retrospect my heart wasn’t in it. Granted I didn’t have as many contact hours with kids as I did in Thailand, and I had adult classes that I actually did enjoy, but I think deep down I was rather dismayed – but didn’t want to admit it.

Dammit Jim, I'm a teacher, not a clown!I was grimly determined to make things work here this time; I enjoy being in Viet Nam much more than I did Thailand (more on that in a later post, as previously promised), and really wanted to do well at the private language school. I really wanted things to be a success on all fronts this time around. But I’m sure this feeling of dismay was affecting my attitude in the classroom; I know it was out of it. I used to dread going into school on evenings and Saturdays when I had kids’ classes. Didn’t want to prepare lessons for them – hell, I didn’t want to think about them. And those hour-and-a-half classes used to drag on seemingly for hours sometimes. What the hell am I supposed to do with these kids? How am I supposed to get them to settle down so I can teach them? It took me a couple of months to figure it out in Thailand; in a for-profit private language school, you don’t get that luxury of time.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a clown!

WTF Do I Do Now? Slink Back to the 4th Estate

Dammed if I know. My plan, insofar as I (ever) have one – I’m rather Southeast Asian, in this respect, heh – is to try and get some part-time telecommuting work back in ye olde field of journalism and couple this with income from private lessons; yet again I go slinking back to my professional mistress and beg her to take me back. Perchance all of the mad InterWebs skillz I’ve garnered over the past several years will come in handy.

I briefly toyed with the idea of going back to America and picking up where I left off – being an unemployed slacker half-assedly looking for work. But I quickly dismissed this idea; while I haven’t set Southeast Asia ablaze as a teacher, I have enjoyed my time outside of school both here and in Thailand. I figure I can be marginally employed here even more easily than I can back home in America – the cost of living is much cheaper here, after all. Besides, goofing off in coffee shops is a national pastime here in Viet Nam.

So the dream continues. I may eventually seek a university teaching position either here or in China; one long-time expat teacher here in Bien Hoa has suggested I seek a position with a university in Sai Gon. The fact that I have a journalism degree and many years of experience would make me a valuable commodity, he says, since most foreigners who come here don’t have a degree/experience in a field related to English. I think teaching at the university level would be fun and rewarding; in fact I’ve long had a hazy-long term goal to go to graduate school – always “someday,” and we know what that probably means, eh Dad? – and get a masters so I could teach journalism or English at the college level.

If Only I Could be a Full-time Slacker. Oh, Wait …

On the other hand, just doing part-time work to feed myself and pay the bills while I have leisure time to explore Asia further, while also pursuing my own writing and photography work, sounds ideal. When I ask myself, “Self, in your heart of hearts, if money were no object, what would you be doing?” The answer has three parts:

  • traveling/living abroad
  • writing – blogging and creatively
  • photography/art (as in 3D rendering)

Well, I got the first part down, at least for now. I fiddle with the other two, but not nearly as much as I would like. I’ve often thought about how I can make money with photography; I already know how to make money at writing from a non-fiction/journalism standpoint, but haven’t attempted to publish anything creatively in years. What’s more, when I read on the blogs of some of my favorite authors about all the trials and tribulations they go through, and talk with pro photographers about what they do to pay the bills, I think “meh.” I want to write and I want to make images, but I don’t want to do that.

I don’t want either one to become a job. I used to be passionate about journalism; I still am to some degree. I can still enjoy doing it, if the story I’m working on is a subject I find particularly interesting. But at some point over the years it became a job, and not a passion. And I get bored with jobs quite easily. I don’t want writing creatively or photography to ever become just a job. I don’t want to take pictures of weddings or products or CEOs – I want to take photos of things I want to shoot; of things that I find visually appealing/arresting. I want to make images of things and ideas that I’m passionate about. As cliché as it sounds, “I wanna make art.”

I could get into photojournalism, but again, having worked as journalist so long, I know it would more than likely become a job very quickly, except when I was working on a story that I personally cared about. It’s the same with writing creatively. I’m vain enough/confident enough in my ability to believe that I could write fiction and eventually get published enough to make a bit of dough at it, but again – to hear established authors tell it, it sounds like a job. Even after they have put years into their craft, they don’t necessarily get to write what they want, and even when they do, it often has to be tailored for a market in order to be salable/publishable. And how many of our favorite authors have we read that clearly “phoned it in” on subsequent novels published after a brilliant one, in order to fulfill a three-book contract? Screw that. It sounds too much like work – like a job. So why even try?

I think at the end of the day I can only be happy doing what I want to do – can anyone be truly happy doing anything other than something they truly want to be doing?

So now whut? That’s why I like having my own website – it’s nothing but me being self indulgent. Show me someone who edits his own copy and I’ll show you someone that has a fool for an editor. I firmly believe this. Nevertheless, I enjoy having my own site and populating it with my epistles and expostulations merely because I have no editor other than my own muse. I write what I want, post what I want, put up whatever pictures/images I want – no copy editors telling me that my em dash or semicolon should be replaced by a period and a new sentence begun. No managing editor telling me to dumb down the language or to cut 200 words to make a dogleg fit. No editor-in-chief or publisher telling me we can’t print that because it will piss off an advertiser. I do what I want, and when I don’t feel like it, I don’t. After years of working in journalism, it’s a wonderfully liberating feeling.

It’s funny, but I don’t even care that my site has so little traffic, in spite of the hours I spend on it. I could do more on various fronts to increase said trafic – but then it becomes work; at that stage, it’s a job. It’s here to make me happy, and it does (I’m quite pleased with this latest theme). Now if only I could find something that makes me as happy as my own writing and photography make me, and also puts food in my mouth. But then I suppose that’s what every human being has been trying to figure out ever since we started planting crops and invented leisure time.

Is Someone Trying to Tell Me Something?

So, since I recently became an economic statistic, I’ve been updating ye olde resume and clip file, in preparation for seeking gainful employment. While I have a current gig at GPS Maniac, I only get a chunk of the advertising revenue from that; I draw no monthly salary. So until such time as that happens, i.e, the advertising reps at sister pub and former employer GPS World sell some ads on the Maniac, I need to pay some bills and feed myself.

I was looking for some clips from my trip to [tag]China[/tag] on behalf of E-News back in 2005 today when I came across the blog I kept as part of that project. I had thought that this was long gone. I have a PDF of the entire microsite that housed the blog, and my stories filed from China, among other things involved with this China trip project, but had thought Reed Business had taken down the blog long ago, along with the microsite. But the blog is still there, tucked into a dusty little corner of EDN (Electronic Design News, the pub that eventually absorbed what was left of Electronic News Online when Reed pulled the plug).

This was a relief, because I wasn’t looking forward to editing more than 1,000 pages in the PDF file I made from the microsite once upon a time and making it presentable. Anyway, you can read more about the China/Silicon Road project here, and read some of the stories and blog entries produced from my memorable month in the midst of this 5,000-year-old culture, if you are so inclined.

This seemed a bit coincidental, as I had just been talking on the phone previously with a former colleague; among other things we had talked about was my eventual return to China — as this is a frequent topic with me, anyway — and her son, who used to teach English at a university in Kunming, in central China, for some years. Naturally I’ve been thinking about pursuing a career in [tag]TEFL[/tag] — teaching English as a foreign language — ever since I came back from China.

Didn’t give it much thought though, until I was at the gym tonight, doing run/walk intervals on the treadmill (because I’m in such sad shape these days I can’t even run 30 minutes on the treadmill). What do I stumble across on the vast wasteland of the idiot box on my machine (it’s one of those kinds of gyms) but an episode of Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations, in which he travels to China, dining on duck in Beijing and hot pot in Chengdu, among other Chinese culinary delicacies. God, it about killed me. Between reading my old clips and watching this show, it all came back to me; I think if I had the money right now I’d be on a plane to China tonight, and I would fly straight through to Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan province and the best damn food in the world.

I have to admit, [tag]Anthony Bourdain[/tag], given the constraints of a one-hour television program, did China and its cuisine justice, I thought. And I couldn’t help but think, as I drove home from the gym, that someone is trying to tell me something. …

Goodnight Opus. All Good Things …

No please don’t thank me, Mr. Breathed. Rather, let me thank you; you deserve it.

Thank you for the all the comics over the years … [tag]Bloom County[/tag], [tag]Outland[/tag], and [tag]Opus[/tag]. It almost seems a shame to call them comics, as your humor, often drenched in political satire and social commentary, was consistently clever and amusing, and frequently bordered on brilliant – sometimes it even crossed that border into a land that few reach. At times your work was also touching, even poignant, and for that I think the term “art” can be applied, and deservedly so.

You came along at a critical time for me; I turned 12 at the end of 1980, the year that Bloom County debuted. I didn’t really get Bloom County then, but I kept reading; I was an avid comics reader. And as my adolescent mind began to … well, I hesitate to say mature; some might say my mind has yet to mature, and I would admittedly be hard pressed to disagree – let’s just say as I traveled headlong toward adulthood, somewhere along the line I began to get the strip. I even started to look forward to it. When I would read the funnies while eating cereal before school or stretched out on the living floor late on a Sunday morning, Bloom County was always the last strip I read; I always saved the best for last.

So thanks for all that. Looking back with the Bloom County books over the years, it’s been fun to enjoy all the humor that I didn’t get or misinterpreted the first time around. You can even see how Bloom County emerged from the omnipresent shadow of Doonesbury and found its own footing on new ground. I could go on and on about various story lines, but the parodies of Star Trek and heavy metal warrant special mention; sometimes I still tell people that my favorite band is Deathtöngue. And let us not forget Oliver, Bloom County’s resident scientist, hacker, and back-alley plastic surgeon and liposuctionist. We have seen the nerds, and they is us. Thank you.

I was a year away from graduating college when Bloom County became a comic strip for the ages. I admit, I was slow to figure out that it was gone, as I had other things on my mind, such as girls, alcohol, getting an acceptable grade in News Writing 101, and deadlines at the Athens News and Southeast Ohio Magazine. Fortunately Outland came along soon after, so I could still get my comic strip fix once a week. So thanks for that, too. If I ever have a daughter, I won’t name her Ronald Ann (unless maybe her mother turns out to be exceptionally cool), but as a gesture to you, I’ll briefly consider it.

So Outland left us in the mid 1990s, going out with a bang – Steve came out, and Opus reunited with his mother in Antarctica. Soon afterward, I set out for Arizona with a fiancée and all my worldly possessions in tow. 2003 found me in Northern California, single (thank the god(s)), riding my bike a lot, and working for the online version of a high-tech trade publication that helped usher in the Internet age that lead to its demise – irony of ironies for a newspaper refugee (I caught that “-30-” next to your name in the last strip; you’re dating yourself, Mr. [tag]Breathed[/tag]). I had also had a taste of travel abroad by this time – several in fact – which only seemed to inflame my already restless soul.

It was a strange time, both within and without, so I was happy to welcome back Opus and the Bloom County gang back into my life; sometimes seeing old friends can be disturbing, but usually it’s a happy, joyful occurrence, and Opus definitely fell into the latter, even though now we more often met via the Internet rather than the Sunday funnies. Again, that’s an irony that isn’t lost on either of us, I’m sure. But thanks just the same. The Bush II era, the Aughts – whatever this decade ends up being called, as fucked up as it was, it was a little easier to stomach with Opus every Sunday.

So now Opus and Opus are … gone. While the rest of the cast joined Milo and Cutter John over in the meadow, Opus escaped the insanity of our times for the eternal comfort of Goodnight Moon.

Above all else, thank you for this too, Mr. Breathed. It is the end that Opus deserves. Thank you for following your muse, and ending the strip when she told you it was time. I understand why you want to end it now, leaving Opus comfortably enshrined in his dreams, tucked safe and sound between the covers of a cherished children’s book, lest he fall into the dark precipice that looms before us. Now that vulnerable, lovable, nature that was coupled with comic naïveté and insecurity will always remain intact. Would that we could all go there. I don’t seem to share the Audacity of Hopetm like so many others on the eve of this 2008 election, regardless of who wins; and I would not want to see Opus lose his.

And thank you for refusing to make an Opus animated feature film without having complete creative control. I hate to think what would become of Opus and the Bloom County crew in the hands of commercial Hollywood. I doubt many would follow your example were they in your shoes; most would no doubt sell out Opus, Milo, and Binkley for the big bucks. Given what the future may hold, perhaps it would be hard to blame them. Nevertheless – and I think I can safely speak for many here – for those of us who hold Opus dear, thanks again.

Seriously, it is we, or at least I, who should thank you. Of course, I’ll miss Opus and the rest, but I know where to find them when I need them. And you, Mr. Breathed, have my respect and admiration, in addition to my thanks, for having the courage and wisdom to let Opus go when he was ready.

You know, I’ve never read your children’s books. Now perhaps I will.

So long, Opus, my old friend; pleasant dreams, forever and always. And Milo (always my favorite), Binkley, Bill, Cutter John, Oliver, Portnoy, Hodge Podge, Steve Dallas, Rosebud, Milquetoast, and Lola – I’ll see you all in the meadow sometime.

Chicago Style and Big Red

Two completely unrelated things.

One: Welcome back, Big Red. Haven’t seen heard you in awhile.  Still not clear on the indoor voice concept, I see hear. Someday you’ll get the attention you need, I hope, for all our ears’ sakes. And as for your choice of Halloween garb, God, it literally killed me to keep my mouth shut. But I’m pretty sure I don’t want to ever register on your radar screen as anything more than background clutter.


Two. *In best gravelly Charleton-Heston-Planet-of-the-Apes voice* Damn you [tag]Chicago Style Manual[/tag]! Damn you all to Hell!

*resuming normal voice* Actually I have nothing against the Chicago Style; style is often nothing but a matter of arbitrary choice, but a necessary one for the sake of consistency across a publication. It is just that every pub I’ve ever wrote and/or edited for, until now, used AP Style. Damn, it sure is hard to get used to after two decades of AP Style … [tag]serial commas[/tag] … argh.


P.S. Not sure why I bothered to Technorati tag serial commas. Surely no one would ever blog abut serial commas but journalism nerds, and we’re a fairly rare breed, in these Internet End Times.

Post P.S. How cool is WordPress that it knows the < in the above text is supposed to be just that, and not a code tag? I thought I was going to have to code that by hand, but I previewed it and viola! I should have upgraded a long time ago.

The Ballad of Jeffren and IEZilla: the Coder’s Lament (or, Why I love Opera)

Herein is the epic account of Jeffren, He who would be The Coder, whom the High Elves called Jeffrindel the Stubborn Headed, who took up keyboard to join with the Dreamweaver and do battle against the dread lich lord IEZilla. Upon the bloody field of Webinor, armed with only his copy of lowly Opera did he thusly accost the monster head on. What follows is a direct account, relayed to an elven scribe directly from Jeffren’s lips, as he lay on the field in the bloody aftermath of battle, his body broken, his keyboard dented, but his spirit unbowed, Opera still gleaming defiantly in his hands. …

I haven’t been blogging lately, as I’ve been preoccupied with a number of things, the future path of my employment not the least among them. But the number one preoccupation for me these days involves the update of this very Web site—not this blog, but the whole site in which it resides. I figure a freelance journalist needs to have a serious Web presence these days, and even though my freelance status may soon change, being a computer geek long before it was cool, I like tinkering with such things.

Well, I did until I embarked on the task of developing a three-column layout that utilizes tabbed navigation, [tag]XHTML[/tag] and [tag]CSS[/tag]. If those two terms mean nothing to you, stop reading now; all that is to follow will no doubt comprise a bunch of boring blah-de-blah blah for you. If you are familiar with what those terms mean, then perhaps you will sympathize with my lamentation.

First off, while I know HTML and understand CSS, my knowledge is more that of the serious hobbyist, compared to someone who works as a Web developer for a living. Previously my professional involvement has been taking code that was developed by an expert and helping tweak it for a specific publication’s purposes, or just playing with the format of a chunk of story posted to a Web site via a corporate content management system, getting it to look right in a browser.

Cooking up something like the existing was rather easy; to be honest it was something that I threw up quickly in order to establish a presence back in 2006 when I thought I might be embarking on a freelance career much sooner than I actually did. So the urge to update, and the ensuing ideas have been percolating in my skull for some time now. After playing around with various concepts in InDesign—a seriously kick-butt design tool—I decided I wanted to emulate a newspaper’s front-page design, being a member of the Fourth Estate and all. And I figured it would afford me the opportunity to have some fun and mock not only myself, but small-town papers as well.

Thus our hero did set out to emulate his InDesign creation in XHTML and CSS utilizing Dreamweaver 8. He set forth numerous div tags and CSS, replete with tabbed navigation, and it looked brilliant in Opera, and lo, there was much rejoicing. But lo, again, the dreaded IEZilla, the Non-Standards Compliant Browser Monster, who in the past rarely troubled our hero—except when he needed to check his Yahoo email account–did rear its ugly populist heads, and threaten He who would be The Coder.

As I was soon to discover—as many have before me, getting a three-columned layout accomplished with [tag]div tags[/tag] is not the simplest of tasks. But not ridiculously difficult either, even for the hobbyist. In fact, not having used a WYSIWIG editor for [tag]HTML[/tag] in years, I’ve been impressed with [tag]Dreamweaver[/tag] 8. I find myself frequently still writing code and making changes directly to it and then checking them in a browser, and the CSS code it puts out is a little bloated—not to the point that it would affect performance or anything, just not as tidy as it could be—but on the whole, it is light years ahead of where it was a few incarnations ago. The last time I used Dreamweaver it was called Dreamweaver MX, I believe, and needed it for work, or so I was told. But after using it a short time, I threw in the towel—in a word, “yuck”–and resorted to tinkering with the code by hand.

Anyway, throw in some CSS with the three column layout, along with a header and a footer, and make it look right in three different browsers—[tag]Opera[/tag], Mozilla/Firefox and Internet Exploder—and things get righteously ugly real fast. As I mentioned, I’m hardly the first to deal with this, and surely won’t be the last.

Getting things to look right in Opera isn’t hard. This alternative browser, which is my preferred one, advertises itself as the most standards compliant, and after this experience, I’m inclined to believe it’s true. My early efforts would come out just as I expected when I looked at the code through Opera; my code and Dreamweaver, Dreamweaver-generated CSS tags and Opera all seemed to get along fine. Then, as I got nearer to completion of the new front-page for, I started looking at the code in [tag]Firefox[/tag] and [tag]Internet Explorer[/tag], just to make sure it would like right to everyone. This was important, I figured, as being a freelancer. After all, potential employers would be looking at it, and Opera, lovely as it is, isn’t used nearly as much as Firefox, and certainly not IE, the pokey, 800-pound-Gorilla of browsers that the vast majority of the world uses.

And here’s where our hero ran into trouble. Get things to look right in Firefox and IE, and it looks like hell in Opera. Fix it in IE, and it looks okay in Opera, but not in Firefox. Or the opposite would be true; it looked okay in Firefox and Opera, but not IE. Rarely would I get the code to look acceptable in all three. Then, as soon as I added a new element, I would go through the same routine all over again. At points I would literally be yelling in frustration—the neighbors upstairs must have thought I started playing World of Warcraft again.

At last, after a couple weeks of intensive tinkering, I think I have an acceptable compromise for the three-column front page (cross-browser tweaking still in progress). Ironically, trying to reproduce a newspaper-style layout, even a simple one like mine, in XHTML and CSS and compliant with all three browsers, lead to most of my problems. At one point I was even tinkering with leading—leading!–in my paragraph tags. Leading for those of you who are not newspaper refugees, refers to the amount of space between lines of text. That’s where Dreamweaver is really handy for the hobbyist coder like me; changing the leading is possible via CSS, but it’s not common, and I had no idea what the parameter tag was; Dreamweaver to the rescue.

Damn you Microsoft, and ‘Zilla too

There were other problems too, but that’s the meat of it. Of course, I could have just made it look pretty in IE and to hell with the rest, but I love Opera—even more so, now—and feel compelled to do my small part and help spread the gospel. I also understand now why the corporate world kowtows to IE—because it’s a time-intensive hassle to accommodate browsers other than the popular standard (even though they are standards compliant). And I understand now why Micro$oft chooses to make IE non-compliant; it can get away with it because its use is so widespread (there’s that whole issue of shipping the OS with the browser and all), and it sticks it to its competitors in a roundabout but effective manner. We may not like it, but it’s hard to argue with, from a business standpoint—kinda have to admire it, in a way, the same way scholars admire Ghenghis Khan.

I used to wonder what all the fuss was about; now I understand all too well. And as for [tag]Mozilla[/tag]/Firefox, well, I would have thought it would be more compliant with XHTML and CSS than it is. One would expect that sort of thing from IE, but not from the alternative browser champion.

Now I have to develop a template for the interior pages of; I can assure there will be no more three-column pages. And the next time I update, I’m just going to develop two, perhaps even three different versions of the CSS code; that will be easier than trying to come up with one version to make all three happy.

And you should do your part: go download and use Opera if you don’t already. It’s free and better than Firefox (IE isn’t even the same league).

And thus did Jeffrindel, even as he lay on the battlefield attending to his wounds, surrounded by bloody and disemboweled CSS tags and stray lines of code limping off into the distance, pledge to fight on, against overwhelming odds. “‘With the Olde Goddess Arpanetta as my witness, I shall not yield!” he cried defiantly, brandishing Opera before him in one hand, and the Dreamweaver at his side. “IEZilla—this war is not over!”

Fate: a ruttish fly-bitten puttock!

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.

–William Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar (Cassius discussing Caesar with Brutus, Act I, Scene II)

Sometimes I wonder. I think [tag]Fate[/tag] mocks me. Yes me, personally, as a matter of purpose. And since I’m breaking rules and personifying Fate (I’m hardly the first; it’s not like there isn’t precedent), I’ll also capitalize it.

Just when things settle down to routine and I decide that I’m going to pursue freelance writing opportunities for the next year or so, saving money and preparing to venture abroad and try my hand at teaching English as a foreign language, Fate steps in and mucks it all up. Last week I flew to Newark, NJ for a job interview that came out of the blue; the position would involve relocation to the NJ/NY City area and working in an office (something I haven’t done since June of 2001—horrors!). The interview, prompted by a former colleague who now works for the publication in question, seemed to go well, despite my rather rusty interview skills—the last time I actually participated in a formal job interview process was December, 1999.

Then, I get a call today from the folks that I currently freelance for on a regular, daily basis, inquiring about my interest in a new full-time position (this one would ostensibly involve telecommuting full-time, incidentally, since most of the company’s current editors telecommute themselves). The group publisher of this particular pub (actually there are two involved in this position) had actually told me a few months ago that she may have more work for me in the new year; but I hadn’t considered that it might involve a full-time position; I had just assumed that it was more freelance work.

Curse you, fickle Fate! Damn you! A [tag]pox[/tag] on thee, thou ruttish fly-bitten puttock!

I had just put up my resume and profiles on several sites that bring together freelance writers and freelance writing jobs (Mediabistro— for scribes!), in anticipation of pursuing freelance writing full-time this year. 2007 was a half-and-half kinda year, in that respect, but 2008—this was to be the year that Jeff Chappell was a permanent hired gun—er, pen or keyboard, rather. Then all this comes down with job opportunities and full-time inquiries.

I should have known something like this was coming, because I ordered new checks late last year. Every time I order new checks, specifically the second set of checks after opening a new bank account, it presages a geographical relocation for me, usually prompted by a job change. Seriously, as a post-college adult, this has always proved true. Moves back to Cincinnati from Michigan, up to Cleveland, out to Arizona, then San Jose, California, back across the continent to West Virginia, then back to Cincinnati (again!)–all forecasted by the ordering of new checks. I hardly ever write checks anymore—pay almost everything online—but I figured I should have a few around; it comes in handy from time to time, like when I forget to pay my rent early via online bill pay (and if you look up absent-minded in the dictionary, there is a picture of me).

So, what to do, what to do. I’m not really complaining, of course—actually rather grateful to be in this position. I’m actually very fortunate, and I know it. Particularly the way the economy is headed these days.

But things like my current situation always make me question the nature of fate. Is it really up to me, and me alone, as to whether I stride the world like a Colossus, or scurry about as Cassius’ so-called underlying, seemingly the plaything of the stars, but in reality just afraid to take life by the short hairs (there’s a metaphor I don’t believe Shakespeare every employed). Am I really master of my destiny (if not my domain, heh), or merely the plaything pawn of the stars? Being a staunch, self-centered individualist, I’m inclined to agree with the Bard and others that I’m calling the shots (although [tag]Shakespeare[/tag] seemed to be of two minds on the question of self determination). But If I were Fate—note the capital—I doubt I could resist messing with people in similar situations and beliefs, throwing out some options when they were least expected, just to keep ’em guessing. I’d be a bit of a rapscallion, if I were Fate.

Maybe we are masters of our own [tag]destiny[/tag], for the most part, but Fate likes to step in once in a while, just to keep us on our toes—to make life interesting.

Fate, you crazy kid.

Addressing GRE-phobia

I compiled the list below while researching grad school programs, specifically programs that offer a Peace Corps/Masters International track. Masters International is a program that lets you incorporate a stint in the Peace Corps overseas with a masters degree program. I’m specifically looking at English/teaching programs (although UNLV, of all places, offers a really cool-sounding creative writing MFA). For a long time, literally several years now–ever since I came home from China–I’ve been thinking about how I can get back to Asia, and in the long run travel the world indefinitely, without the aid of being independently wealthy. Teaching English is an obvious choice.

This occurs to a lot of people–images of the idiot Western meathead dood or the crunchy granola girl going abroad to teach English in total ignorance of what is involved and without any real concept of what the local culture is like outside of the tourist hotspots has become cliché, and with good reason. But I’m very serious about it, and I’ve been putting a lot of research and time into finding out all I can about it, and if it would be a viable option for me. In the end, I think I’ve decided to get a CELTA certification and try it for a year. If I dig it, then I’m going to get serious about it–if I hate it, well, I’m sure I can enjoy myself abroad in Asia somewhere for a year, even if it turns out that I don’t care for teaching. And I may be able to pursue other opportunities once I’m there.

I don’t want to pursue teaching, however, if I don’t like it–I don’t think teaching English should be a means to an end and nothing more, even though for many Westerners that is exactly what it is. I readily admit that it is for me, but I don’t want it to be the only thing–If I pursue this route I genuinely want to be a good teacher, and to be a good teacher, I’m going to have to enjoy it. I don’t believe it’s fair to the students, otherwise–not to mention some seriously bad karma.

Anyway, if it does turn out to be for me, I think I will want to pursue a masters degree of some sort eventually, as that seems to open up the door for better opportunities for teaching and working abroad than just a CELTA or some other type of TESL/TEFL certification. Especially as an American, if you want to work in Western Europe at a university, or in a business English program, an MA degree seems to be an important differentiator. The same can be said of some first-world Asian countries as well–many of the better jobs in a university setting require a masters degree. Not always, but generally speaking.

So I thought I would post this list I compiled for my own future reference, and for anyone else with similar interests. There are other graduate programs participating in the Peace Corp’s Masters International program; these are simply ones that offer some sort of MA in teaching/English or in the case of UNLV, creative writing. There are also a few others that involve teaching other subjects, such as science, but those require a bachelors in science field—these are programs that I qualify for with my bachelor of science in journalism degree. Yes, most schools offer a BA in journalism, but Ohio University offers a BS. Not sure there is a difference other than semantics, but a BS in journalism—how apropos.

I specifically compiled this list because I wanted to see which schools required the GRE, and among the ones that did, if anyone required a specific subject test. I was thinking that I might be able to get away without messing with the GRE if I go this route, but that doesn’t appear to be a reasonable option–not if I want to keep all the options for graduate programs on the table.

Funny–I would get on a plane tomorrow to go teach English in Sichuan province in China–how my mouth waters when I remember my time in Chengdu; damn the food there has to be among the best tasting in the world–but heaven forbid if I have to take the GRE. I’m not scared of it per se; just lazy. It’s been years since I took a standardized test. I’m vain enough to think that I could score 50 percent or better on the verbal section of the general test without any preparation, but I wouldn’t want to leave it up to chance … certainly not for something as important as this. Besides, 50 percent is lame; if I take it I want to kick its ass in no uncertain terms. Pwn it, even.

But I guess it’s something I wouldn’t have to worry about until I come back from my first year or two abroad teaching. And it may turn out that I don’t like teaching, or that I pursue other career avenues once I get overseas. More than one colleague has suggested I should use teaching as a means of getting to the Asian country of my choice, learn the language and then seek a post as a foreign correspondent in a Western news service’s local bureau. Or just freelance travel pieces, or both.

In any event, here’s that list (and I’m way to lazy to encode each link, so you’ll have to cut and paste, or just go to the Peace Corps Masters International page):

American University
Degrees Awarded: TESOL (MA)
GRE: no

Appalachian State University
Degrees Awarded: Master of Arts (MA) (education)
GRE: yes (500 on the GRE verbal)

California State University – Sacramento
Degrees Awarded: TESOL (MA)
GRE: no (but one year of college level foreign language study required)

Colorado State University
Degrees Awarded: Literature (MA), Rhetoric and Composition (MA), TESL (MFA)*, TESOL (MA), Teaching (MAT), Creative Writing (MFA)
GRE: yes (above 500 on verbal,quantitative, and analytic sections)
*apparently this is the only degree available through the Peace Corps/Masters International program

Florida State University
Degrees Awarded*: Master of Science (MS), Education Masters (MEd)
GRE: yes
*program combines Peace Corps service with graduate coursework in international development and the techniques and content of math, science or English/ESL education.

Georgia State University
Degrees Awarded: Applied Linguistics/TESOL (MA)
GRE: yes

Humboldt State University
Degrees Awarded: TESL (MA)
GRE: no

Monterey Institute of International Studies
http://Degrees Awarded: TESOL (MA)
GRE: recommended but not required

School For International Training
Degrees Awarded: Teaching (MA-teaching)
GRE: no

Texas Tech University
Degrees Awarded: Elementary Education (MA)*
GRE: yes
*MI students have the option of choosing from Elementary Education, Secondary Education, and Curriculum and Instruction.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Degrees Awarded: Creative Writing International Program (MFA)
GRE: yes (50 percent or more on verbal)