Message in a Blog-Bottle


Mothers can be difficult to impress, even among the literati.  In an April, 1959 letter written to author Cecil Dawkins, Flannery O’Connor wryly remarks the wonderful news that Cecil has been paid $1,000 for a story.  Noting  her own top payment of $425, Flannery goes on to say,

Your sale to the Post ought to impress your mother greatly.  It sure has impressed my mother, who brought the post card home.  The other day she asked me why I didn’t try to write something that people liked instead of the kind of thing I do write.  Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, A LOT of people like?  This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc.  All I can ever say is, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

I’m no Flannery O’Connor, but I’ve been rendered equally speechless by my own mother.  When she found my first computer happily ensconced on its desk, Mom nosed around it like a wary dog circling a snake.   “What are you going to do with it?” she asked.   I didn’t know, and said so.   “Well, how much did it cost?”  I did know that, and despite reservations born of experience I told her.  The disapproving silence thickened until she could stand it no longer.  “You spent all that money for something and don’t even know how you’re going to use it?”  Her perspective on the situation was clear. My computer was the latest version of  hula-hoops or Mr. Potato Head and I was her idiot child, consumed with a child’s breathless longing to possess the same toys as her friends. Continue reading

The “I”s Have It…

Like many new bloggers, I was consumed with anxiety when I posted my first, tentative essays on WordPress.   “Will people like them?”, I wondered.   “Will anyone take time to read them?”   “How will I ever know?”

As time passed and I grew more assured, I began to think less about others’ response to my words and  more about the writing itself.  Georgia O’Keefe once reflected on a book of photographs and text published to mark her 90th birthday by saying,  “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant.  It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest”.  Reading her words, I felt an immediate kinship.  Over the months, I’d begun to make similar comments when discussing my own work. “This is how I understand things.” ” This is the way I experience the world.”  ” This is what I would like you to see.”

To be frank, that’s a lot of “I”. At one time, it would have made me uncomfortable to say such things.  During my formative years, “I” was a bad word.  No one ever said so explicitly, but if any of us began to use it just a little too often, we knew we needed to stop.  “I” was a  selfish word.  “I” was self-centered,  vain and egotistical, prideful, frivolous and perhaps even a little smart-alecky, like the inevitable kid in the back of the classroom who loved to wave his arms and yell, “Teacher! Teacher!  I know! I know!”  It was impossible to stop using “I”, of course, but we weren’t supposed to celebrate its necesssity.

Life being what it is, someone was bound to challenge that view of things.  My challenge appeared in the form of a rumpled and utterly distracted professor who bore a vague resemblance to Quentin Compson.  Tie pulled loosely to one side, occasionally missing a button, shedding files and paper like autumn trees, he was a natural actor whose classes could be pure theatre.  He didn’t precisely teach but rolled through our lives like a force of nature, tacking signs above his desk that proclaimed  Creato, Ergo Sum  and asking questions like,  “If you had to wear a scarlet letter, which one would it be?”   His lectures were filled with a mix of literary classics, myth and religious texts.   We got Genesis, Gilgamesh and the Gospels filtered through Melville, Eliot, Faulkner and Greene.     (Click here to read more)

Content Theft ~ It Matters to Me


Writing has brought innumerable changes to my life. In addition to the need for solving quite concrete and practical problems, like finding enough time in a day to write, I’ve been forced to confront issues which, quite frankly, didn’t concern me even a year ago.

One of those issues is content theft, known more formally as copyright infringement. Across the web, musicians, photographers, writers and artists of every sort have been forced into a kind of guerilla warfare with folks determined to take and use what is not theirs. Some people do it casually and without thought, not intending to offend. But now and then I find comments which indicate other attitudes underlying the actions. “If they put it on the web, it’s fair game”, commented one blogger.  “I figure they’ll never find out,” said another. And recently, I read that “it doesn’t make any difference” who authored a particular piece of work. Having just written and posted what is my favorite, and perhaps best poem, Watching Comet Lulin, I’m afraid I took that rather personally.

To say it makes no difference who wrote something is to say that, when someone comes along and steals my work, I should smile and say, “Well, it’s my vision.  I struggled to put it into words, and took the time to copyright it and claim ownership of it, but that’s ok. If you want to put your name on it and pass it off as yours, I’ll just sit back and let you do it”.

As you might assume, that isn’t going to happen. Intellectual property is intellectual property, and copyright law is binding, and the entire reason for things like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is to protect artists and writers who deserve the rights to their work.

I’ve had my work stolen, and it’s not a good experience. The first time it happened, I was stunned, barely able to breathe when I saw someone else’s name on my essay. Now, about two dozen thefts down the road, it isn’t any easier. The difference is that now I know what to do, and I do it. (Click here to read more)

Paper and Pixels and Ink, O, My!


Even if you’ve never strapped on a set of skis, think Sundance is something that needs a choreographer and really don’t have a taste for the kind of choral music associated with the Mormon Tabernacle,  Salt Lake City has a lot to commend it.   I lived in Salt Lake for a year, and enjoyed it tremendously.  There was art, the Film Festival and good music everywhere.   At the time, bluegrass and newgrass were particularly popular, and if  David Grisman, Vassar Clements and Tony Rice weren’t in Salt Lake, you could find them playing the circuit in Telluride or Greeley with groups like Hot Rize and the Seldom Scene.

We didn’t need the pros to make us happy, of course.  On Sunday afternoons, I’d travel with friends up one of the canyons into the heart of the Wasatch range and kick back  in a cozy little corner where music, cheeseburgers and beer were available and everyone was welcome to play.  If you were even mildly proficient there always was an extra guitar or two around, or a bass player who’d take time for a burger and let you sit in. For the rest of us, there were spoons and washboards and tabletops to drum on – some days, it sounded for all the world like the kindergarten rhythm band had been set loose with Bill Monroe or the Foggy Mountain Boys. Continue reading

Helping to Weave the Web

When I began posting on WordPress in April, friends from another site held a blog-warming.  There were virtual covered dishes, cyber-cinnamon rolls and coffee, a bottle of wine.  It was charming – an adaptation of an old tradition for a new time.

I’d never thought of transferring the concept of housewarming to a blog, but I liked it.   After all the solitary hours I’d spent at my computer designing a site, revising entries and trying to create something pleasing, it was wonderful to have someone stop by to visit and offer good wishes.

Shortly after I’d begun posting, my mother, who doesn’t care one bit for computers but who tries to be polite, asked, “What’s happening with whatever it is you’re doing with that machine of yours?”   And that’s where the fun began.  “Oh!” I said.  “We had a blog-warming.”  She gave me the look she reserves for certain children and people she suspects of being not quite compos mentis.  “A what?  A blog-warming?  What’s that?”  “Well,” I said, “it’s like a housewarming, only it’s for my blog.”

The silence was deafening.  “You mean people came?”   Knowing I was headed for trouble, I tried to make it sound reasonable.  “Well, sort of.  They stopped by and read what I wrote.”  It was good, just not good enough.  Peering at me over her knitting, Mom reminded me, “But you said it was like a housewarming.  People at least bring food to a housewarming.  Did they bring food?”  “Sure they did,” I replied, throwing caution to the winds.  “They brought cinnamon rolls and coffee, a covered dish, some wine…”

At that point, my mother gave me her other look, the one that says she thinks I’ve been holding out on her. “Are there any cinnamon rolls left? “ 

Now, there was no escaping.  “There aren’t any real cinnamon rolls.  They were just pictures on the computer.”  “Then why,” demanded the most tenacious parent in the world, “are you talking about them? Are they real, or not?  And what good is a pretend cinnamon roll?” Continue reading

The Joy of Learning to Close Those Tags


In 1987, a friend invited me to help celebrate her 40th birthday aboard a chartered catamaran on Galveston Bay. I wasn’t a sailor, and never had boarded a sailboat, but I accepted the invitation because I loved my friend and wanted to share in her happiness.  Driving to Galveston, I never imagined I was heading toward  an experience that would still be affecting my life nearly 20 years later.

As we loosed our lines that hot August night, there was a freshening breeze, and a lapping of wavelets against the hull. As the sun touched the dusky horizon and stars emerged above the mast, I felt a sudden impulse. Walking to the stern, I asked the captain, “Do you teach people to do this?” Glancing in my direction, he mused, “No one’s ever asked”.  When I asked again, he gazed at the darkening shoreline a long moment before saying, “Fine. But you’re going to learn it all.”

He was true to his word, and he taught me well.  No one “learns it all”, but I learned enough over the next months to know the joy of competence, and the discipline of the sea. In bays and waterways, offshore swells and quiet anchorages, we practiced navigation, rehearsed Rules of the Road, bled fuel lines, and mended sails. I learned to single-hand, and I learned to crew.  Above all, I learned to love water, wind and sky in a deep and profound way.

The learning took time, but the most important lesson I learned immediately. On my first day aboard, Tom asked me remove the canvas cover from the mainsail furled on its boom. The boom was higher than I could reach; the sail was tightly stacked and tied. Looking at it, I spoke the first words that came to mind: “I can’t reach it.”

Bent over the anchor chain, Tom never moved. When he spoke, his tone was clear: “Never again will you say, ‘I can’t’. If I tell you to do something which seems difficult or impossible, ask, ‘How can I?’ The answer may be that you ask for help, or find someone else to do it, but that’s not where you start. The only way you’ll succeed is by first asking, ‘How can I?’”

“Over the months, there were difficulties to spare. Each time I hesitated, Tom would grin and say, “You know the rule.”   By that time, I certainly did.  When difficulties arise, the rule says: relinquish pessimistic or petulant “I can’t” for curious and optimistic “How can I?” 

Then, begin again.

Over the years, the question I learned to ask on that sailboat has embedded itself so deeply into my psyche it seems a birthright, true across every realm of life. No matter how painful a relationship, no matter how fearful the unknown, no matter how difficult life’s challenges, there always is a way forward.

I’ve had more than a few occasions to remember my “rule” since coming to WordPress.  When I posted my first blog, I was as Dazed and Confused as the title implied.  Confronted by a site filled with people  comfortable with categories, tags, css, rss and html in the way I’m comfortable with my cousins or my cat, I could only admit to the truth: “When I look at a hyperlink, I hyperventilate.  When I hear the word “tag”, I think of a children’s game.  If any computer guru in the world begins a sentence, “All you have to do is…”, I’ve already done a mental turn and am running for my life.  They mean well, and so do I.   It’s just that “intuitive” is not a word I associate with computers or their programs.”

On the other hand, I’m not oblivious to the fact that the world has changed in my lifetime.  I’ve been forced to admit that, “whether I like it or not, the day of the Number 2 pencil, or even the old, clunky Underwood, is over.  If I am to share my words and my vision, technology must become my friend.”

And so, taking a deep breath and with my somewhat older friend “How Can I?” by my side, I began to create a blog.  Step by step, I learned to work with images, and colorize my text.  I learned not to use Word to create my entries, and how to create links.  I learned about blogrolls and Blogger,  text-wrap and Twitter.  It was slow and more-or-less awkward, but all worked well until my last post.

I met my match in the form of four links which wouldn’t format properly.  I like to emphasize links by making their color different from the text around them, and never had problems doing so.  This time, it was beyond me.  I tried everything I knew and a few wild guesses for good measure.  I simply couldn’t make it work.  The only solution was to swallow hard and head off to the forums, to see if I could ask my question clearly enough to find an answer.

The details of the question and answer aren’t really important.  The fact that I was able to solve my problem with the help of a forum volunteer is wonderful, but somewhat beside the point.  The point of it all appeared a day or so later, when I stopped by my blog to answer a comment.

I’ve begun responding to readers by adding my italicized comment directly beneath their post.  It’s neat and tidy, and helps the flow by keeping comment and response together in one place.  This time, when I added my response, the entire comment-and-response became one large, clickable link.  It didn’t hurt anything, but it wasn’t right.  Staring at the screen, caught up in html-phobia, I stopped hyperventilating long enough to remember my success in repairing those four recalcitrant links simply by re-arranging a bit of code.  I thought to myself, “It was easy enough to fix that, once the problem was pointed out to me.  How can I fix this?”

Clicking into the html editor, I looked over the page.  I examined the code as though it were a lab specimen, looking for the anomaly, the error, the out-of-place character.  Making myself slow down, I went through the code one line at a time, over and over, until I found it: an unclosed < a > tag.  Amost breathless with excitement, I added the necessary  < /a >, saved it, and previewed the page.  It was perfect.  

Sometimes, a tiny triumph is enough.  Sometimes, solving even the smallest problem will do.  Now and then, just a glimpse of a present reality can open our eyes to the wonder of future possibilities.  After two months at WordPress, I’m still a bit dazed but not nearly so confused, and I’m learning once again the power of those simple words: how can I? 

It will take time to learn the vocabulary, the culture and the simple etiquette of this blogging world, but I find it more accessible every day.  There’s a certain elegance to this “other language” called html that intrigues me, not to mention the pleasure of learning so many new skills. 

Now and then, someone will ask, “How can you spend so much time messing around with that computer?”   Reading my words, looking at my images, I ponder a bit, and then ask in return, “How can I not?”





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The Death of Freecell


I’ve never been much of a game player.  When I was younger, I did enjoy Scrabble and Monopoly.  I played Mancala in Africa and dominos in south Texas, and in the late 90’s I flirted briefly with the sailing version of Trivial Pursuit.  But I don’t make pilgrimage to Louisiana for the “gaming” found in casinos, and I don’t do video games.  There’s no Guitar Hero or Grand Theft Auto tucked into my bookshelf, and you won’t find Mahjong, chess or checkers.  The cribbage board is stored away in a box because my Dad and I used to play and it has sentimental value, but everything else – the decks of cards,  the assorted boards, the mismatched dice – simply have disappeared. 

The advent of cyber-gaming passed me by as well.  I have friends who spend hours on the computer playing games with people around the world, and they seem to enjoy it.  I’ve tried to become interested, but  it’s never happened.  I’d rather take a walk, go to a gallery or read a book.

The only exception has been Freecell.  When my first computer arrived in 1999, I discovered the folks at the factory had added a few games for my amusement.  I looked them over but didn’t play until one of my friends said, “You really ought to give Freecell a try”.  She’d become a fan when she purchased a computer with Windows95, the first operating system to include the game.  She seemed so enthusiastic I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I set out to learn.

I played one game, and then two.  Then, I played a few more.  It wasn’t long before I’d play two or three games every night before bed.  One day I realized I’d played a hundred games, and then a thousand.   By the time I traded in my old Win98 clunker for a spiffy new duocore, I’d logged 6,754 games.  That’s not much in the shadowy world of Freecell addiction, but for a dedicated non-gamer, it’s enough.

As much a puzzle as a game, Freecell has a lot to recommend it.  The game can be as mindless or challenging as you want to make it, and it fits easily into those few minutes before bed or with a cup of coffee in the morning. Not only that, it has one of the highest win rates of any solitaire, which contributes to the fun and the addictive quality of the game.  

There are claims on the internet that almost every Freecell deal can be won.  When Dave Ring started The Internet Freecell Project, he attempted to solve all the deals using human beings.  The project was finished in October 1995, and only one game defied every human player’s attempt to be successful: game  #11,982, which has been shown to be unsolvable by several software solvers.

When I stopped playing Freecell on the Windows98 computer, my winning percentage was 71%,.  Now, on my lovely new computer with the zippy cards, sound effects and neat new graphics, I have a winning percentage of 75%.  But that increased winning percentage can be misleading.   Since my new computer arrived on January 16, I’ve played precisely four games of Freecell.

I played those four games during my first week with my new “infernal persnickity timesucker”.  Then, Freecell was set aside as I learned a new operating system, installed new software programs and peripherals and generally got accustomed to a radically new world.  Moving from Windows98 with dialup to Vista with broadband left me a bit breathless, amazed at the possibilities.  I watched YouTube for the first time, and found the time required to list an Ebay auction reduced from thirty minutes to ten.  While drinking one cup of coffee I could process a batch of photos, google my way into a topic and out again, answer my emails and tidy up my desktop, downloading a few files in the process.  There would have been great chunks of extra time for Freecell, except for this: I had decided to write.

I’d been doing a little light blogging on the WeatherUnderground website since October, 2007, and enjoyed it tremendously.  But I had a friend who kept whispering, “You need to do more.  Get on a real blog site.  Spread your wings.  Push the limits.  Expand your audience….’   After looking at assorted sites and  experimenting a bit,  I made a commitment.   I was going to write, and I was going to do it by maintaining two blogs.  At WeatherUnderground, I would continue with my more-or-less weekly posting, and on WordPress, I would try to update at least every three days.  It seemed a wonderful plan.  I had ideas galore, and energy to spare.

Now, two months and about twenty-five blogs down the road, I can’t help but think of my favorite quotation from Woody Allen: The longest journey begins with a single step.  The best journeys begin with a moment of temporary insanity.  In some ways, the writing has been the least of the craziness.  As I learn the vocabulary of “real” blogging (trackbacks? pingbacks? authority? tags? domain mapping?), struggle with html, keep a wary eye on the CSS project still waiting in the wings and keep adding to the list of drafts to be outlined and researched, I wouldn’t change a thing, and yet everything has changed.

Freecell was only the first casualty.   Television viewing was next.   I haven’t been to Ebay since January, and I’ve seen 2 a.m. so many times I think I’m back in college.  My mother rolls her eyes; my cat sits and gives me the evil eye.  No matter which one is around, when I head toward the computer, they sigh.   Neither is especially happy with my new enthusiasm. 

Nevertheless, for good or for ill, I keep writing, reading and learning.  Slowly, I’m developing a new routine.  The technical tasks are becoming easier, the site soon will look the way I see it in my mind, and the delight of sharing my vision and words with others is increasing exponentially.  Writing, I’m beginning to understand, can be something you do, or it can define who you are.  When I first saw one of my blogs republished on another site, with my name attached and the description, “writer and blogger” included,  I was amazed.  And yet, with every word, every paragraph, every entry, I’m filling up that description with a new and vibrant reality.  It may be a crazy journey, but it’s one of the best I’ve taken.

As for freecell, I suspect I’m not going to increase my winning percentage by much no matter how many games I play.  I believe I’ll let it rest, and just keep writing.  That way, I’ll be sure to stay ahead of the game.





COMMENTS are welcome.  To read previous comments or post one of your own, please click on the tiny “Comments” link below.  Eventually, I’ll learn CSS and revise the template, but this note will have to do for the time being.

© Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008