Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Forgotten Rain

My eldest daughter told me, "Dad - I don't know how you see all these things you take pictures of." This photograph was taken two doors down from our home at the edge of our neighbor's front yard retaining wall. There is beauty everywhere - we just have to see it.

You can find Forgotten Rain, sized for widescreen and standard monitors, at

Additional free wallpaper based on my photography can be found at

I'll be offering a new wallpaper each day between now and December 22nd - which is not only Winter Solstice, but will see the rebirth of my non-religious spiritual site, Old Ways, that I founded back in 1997.  With over 800 pages of original articles, lessons, and video, it went offline earlier this year but will return in 8 more days.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Solstice Morning

I tend to wander, camera in hand, whenever the opportunity presents itself.  This photograph was taken shortly after dawn in the high plateaus of Eastern Oregon in 2007.  A lone deer, foraging for food, turned to look at me while I was out enjoying the morning.

You can find Solstice Morning, sized for widescreen and standard monitors, at

Additional free wallpaper based on my photography can be found at

I'll be offering a new wallpaper each day between now and December 22nd - which is not only Winter Solstice, but will see the rebirth of my non-religious spiritual site, Old Ways, that I founded back in 1997.  With over 800 pages of original articles, lessons, and video, it went offline earlier this year but will return in 9 more days.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When the Street Lights Come On

I was discussing the state of our country with a bunch of my friends yesterday when one of them asked, "But was it ever altogether good?"

That really got me thinking. Do we look back on earlier times, viewing them through some filter that says, "Things were never this bad"? We've all heard the stories that begin with the phrase, "Back when I was a kid." But were things really better? Did we have a better life? Was the life we lived ever, you know, good?

You know what? It was.

I primarily grew up in a small farming community here in Oregon that had a population of less than 10,000 people. Rather than staying inside all day, watching television or playing video games, we kids went outside and explored. Either on foot or by bike, I covered every inch of that town - the back alleys; the main streets; the empty lots; every nook and cranny. In grade school I'd run off with friends, climbing trees, picking berries, and swimming in rivers - without an adult to supervise us anywhere in sight. Did we get in trouble? Oh, more than once. One of our group would be taken home and parents would call their phone tree, making sure that each guilty child was snared in the net. My pocket knife was finally confiscated the second time I needed stitches and had to walk home, my hand wrapped in a bloody t-shirt. No one was worried about child abduction or lawsuits or what might happen if we weren't watched. Sometimes I'd come home for lunch; sometimes I wouldn't; but I'd always share my day's plans ahead of time. The rule was always the same - "Come home when the street lights come on."

We didn't pick up a phone, send a text, IM, or email our friends to see what they were doing. I'd hop on my bike and ride to their house. If they weren't home, I'd ride to the next friend's house or go off on my own. Before I was even old enough to go to school, I used to walk over to friends' houses or run simple errands to the corner market - even crossing the street on my own after making sure to look both ways.

My family moved to the big city (a suburb of Seattle for a year) when I was in first grade and the same rules applied. It wasn't just in our little town where things were different. Sure there were more people and more cars, but I'd still ride my bike to the closest pizza parlor to play coin-operated arcade games with my friends or down to the convenience store to buy comics and candy. Every store had bins of penny candy and kids would rifle through them, bringing handfuls of sweets up to the counter with pocket full of loose change; no one was ever worried that they might simply steal it. We played ball in vacant lots and dared each other to explore boarded up houses and stayed out late in the summer, coming home when the street lights came on.

Racism was unheard of even in a completely white farming town. A new family moved to our town when I was in grade school, raising the number of African American kids in our school from zero to three. We called them "black" or "brown" just like we were "white." No one told us we were being racist by noticing that we were all different. And to be honest, we thought the "black" kids were really cool. I couldn't wait to make friends with Kenny (the new boy in my grade) and was so excited when he invited me over to his house! I remember feeling like a celebrity, the only white person there, and I wondered if Kenny felt like that all the time since he was the only African American kid in our class. His parents were so nice. I can still remember standing there as his mom made us a snack, trying hard not to stare at the calendar with a painting of naked "black" women for that month. The painted women were beautiful and I thought it was really cool that their skin was colored differently (as in coloring with crayons different) than mine was. It didn't seem wrong to be different; it was so beautiful in a way that was unique in my world.

A few months later, a boy named Achi joined our school. No one was sure what to call him as his skin wasn't really brown like Kenny's but really wasn't any other definable color either. We knew he wasn't Chinese or Japanese, so he was just Achi. And once again, instant celebrity! Everyone wanted to be Achi's friend because he was different than everyone else in our class. Achi moved to the States from very rural Cambodia, spoke very little English, and didn't understand modern plumbing or that our school's bathrooms were segregated by gender. I can't count the times the first week when one of the girls would get a teacher and say, "Achi's in the girls' bathroom again." Everyone was patient. Everyone understood that he was from a different part of the world and wouldn't instinctively know how our culture worked. The boys showed him how to use the facilities and whoever was closest showed him how to work the drinking fountain until he got the hang of it. No one thought it was weird or complained about him. He was just Achi.

My family were very conservative Christians; my father was an extraordinarily conservative Republican. We went to church three times a week (Wednesday night and twice on Sundays) and we weren't allowed to listen to secular music or watch a long list of popular television shows. Everyone at school knew this. Instead of being teased for being different, I was invited over to friends' houses to spend the night - where we'd play all-night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons (gasp!), watch MTV and HBO (gasp! gasp!) and have horror movie marathons. After all, different - whether you were from a different country or a different culture right down the street - meant that others would step in to lend a helping hand.

I was given an allowance of $20 a month and was told that I had to buy my own school lunches with that. (It was just enough to cover hot lunches for a month.) Prices were low enough back then that, by making a budget, clipping coupons, and shopping ads, I could have delicious cold lunches for a month and still have money left over to buy comic books and go out for milk shakes with my best friend. Adjusting for inflation, can you imagine buying a month's worth of groceries for school lunches for $40? There were no giant-size supermarkets so, after clipping my coupons, I'd ride from one grocery store to another, getting the best deals. Everyone did. My grandmother was the master at the process and her pantry was continually stocked with whatever happened to be on hand.

Without microwave ovens I learned to cook. If there wasn't time to cook, I'd eat a sandwich. If there wasn't time for a sandwich, I'd grab some fresh fruit. Each summer, as I left the house early to bike and play with friends, my diet was primarily what I could pick from a tree, a bush, or snag from the refrigerator to eat on the way out the door. I don't know that I ever ate a granola bar until I was an adult. There wasn't a single kid among us who could be considered obese. In fact, I think we had one significantly over-weight boy in our entire grade school. Fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of exercise has a tendency to erase childhood obesity.

I knew everyone on my grandmother's street by name - and many of the people in a two block radius around her home. I mowed Lena's lawn, the widow who lived across the street from my grandparents, would hang out in the elderly gentleman's garage while he worked on wood projects a block away, and regularly said hello and stopped to talk to people as I walked down the sidewalk. I remember when the couple across the street had their first baby when I was just a little kid - and I remember staring at their house from my grandmother's window, knowing that their family had changed, that a new person lived there now. Years later I'd babysit for them after their one child had been joined by two other siblings.

Could politicians be trusted back then? Not really. Were wars still fought? All the time. I interviewed my grandfather (who had fought in both WWII and Korea) for a school project. My family had a strong history of military service and most of them had seen combat in one war or another. Did crime still happen? Absolutely. It was only a couple of weeks after my eleventh birthday when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

But things were different then. They were better then. We've lost something, something that you can't measure, that you can't assign a price tag to. We've lost trust. Trust in ourselves, in our neighbors, and in our communities. We've replaced that trust with fear. Fear erases community. It sets us against each other. It divides us.

When we look around at our world, at the protests that seem to be springing up everywhere, those aren't individuals that are standing there alone shouting "What the hell?" It's people coming together in a common moment. In the moments that we stand, shoulder to shoulder, we're doing more than simply shouting with a single voice. For however long that moment lasts, we're neighbors again. We're a community. We trust each other. While we've lost so much of that, it's not gone. It's who we are. All we have to do is reach out to each other and find it there. We need to stop listening to the talking heads that say, "Be afraid," and start reaching out to one another and saying, "Let me help." The common theme in almost every memory of my childhood involves us reaching out to each other. We didn't call, we stopped by. We said hello to each other and stopped to talk about families. Old men would teach young neighbor boys wood working. New kids would be embraced by their new classmates and shown around the school. Even when we got in trouble, our parents were informed and they called each other.

While the world around us has changed, if we stand together, we can re-forge a connection where trust was the norm, where we helped each other, and where we can confidently tell our kids, "Come home when the street lights come on."

I want to live in that world again. How about you?

I originally wrote this back on March 2, 2011 for Old Ways, a site that I founded on March 21, 1997.  Old Ways went offline earlier this year, but will return to the Internet on December 22, 2011.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

My Perfect Thanksgiving

The following is excerpted from my third novel, Remembering Tomorrow.  While it illustrates one approach to celebration of Lughnasadh, many of the themes would work just as well for the modern holiday of Thanksgiving.

The long wooden structure was brightly lit with candles and oil lamps, the flickering light filling the feasting hall with a welcoming glow. Rectangular tables were set end-to-end around the perimeter of the room, forming a single u-shaped seating area, the opening facing the double doors that let in the cool night air. Chairs were arranged along the outside of the tables, the seats quickly filling with the laughing, chattering members of the settlement, each dressed in their best clothes for the holiday. The joyful chaos of their voices tumbled out the open doors and into the dark Autumn night, the sounds drifting across the compound until they were nothing more than whispers tiptoeing through the trees of the grove.

In the center of the large gathering hall stood a single ancient tree, its massive trunk extending through an open skylight in the ceiling, the building erected around it. The tree echoed a tradition that predated the changes in the world around them, its significance established by Kyle’s mother when they were new to the mountains and he was no more than a boy. As the years passed and other refugees found their hidden sanctuary, the tree had come to symbolize the life of the settlement. Superstition held that as long as the tree grew and thrived, the tiny community would do the same. But if the tree died, the members of the settlement believed that their hopes and dreams died with it. It had become the heart of the community, the tree’s health intimately tied to the livelihood of the mountain village. Children were christened at its base; lovers married beside its trunk. It was a sympathetic magic, a legend hinting that those blessings laid at its roots would grow tall and strong with the mighty oak.

With the celebration of the first harvest, the members of the community had laid tokens of their labors around the tree’s base. Produce and crafts were carefully arranged like presents around a Christmas tree; ribbons of cloth and newly died yarn were woven around the trunk. As the tree slowly grew, it would carry the symbolism of their tokens with it, bringing the hopes for continued bounty into the next year even as those that gathered around its trunk gave their thanks.

Alex strode into the great hall, waiting patiently behind the line of people that approached the central tree before moving on to take their seats. The clothing that Heather had made for him fit perfectly; the thick cotton trousers the color of the earth were tucked into a pair of worn boots, the deep green shirt its perfect compliment, accentuating the lines of his lean, muscular torso. Heather had the eyes of a seamstress, the gift to look a person over once and know exactly how to cut the cloth to fit their build. Meeting her eyes across the room where she directed the children in setting the tables, he mouthed the words, “Thank you,” looking down and gesturing to his clothes, rewarded with her smile when he looked up again.

At last, Alex approached the tree, the couple in front of him laying their token at its base and saying a quiet prayer before continuing on. Moving to the side, he knelt and laid a small loaf of bread among the other offerings. He stayed on one knee for a moment, his eyes picking out a single token among the gifts. A quartered circle, woven of dried grapevines lay nestled under the other offerings. Each intersection of the talisman was tied with a tiny swatch of cloth, its carefully embroidered pattern unmistakable. He wasn’t sure what it represented, but he recognized it as the fabric of the robe Megan had worn when he’d stayed with her, and hope grew within him that it symbolized a blessing she asked the tree for.

Standing, he searched for her among the gathered revelers. A crowd of laughing, talkative villagers had formed around the head of the table and Alex, sharing their good mood with the host and hostess of the feast. Alex tried to glimpse Megan through the milling throng, but couldn’t see through them, so he took his place beside Peter, amidst the patrol members, Megan’s seat at the head of the guardsmen remaining vacant.


The feast had been a wonderful success and praises were heaped upon Heather for her fine cooking and wonderful gifts. The settlement had gorged themselves on venison, pheasant, and duck, vegetable dishes harvested from their greenhouses, and breads baked from bartered flour. Megan looked radiant in her deep green cloak, edged with golden knotwork that reminded one of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Fastened with an intricate iron clasp, the rich fabric draped over Megan’s shoulders, the hood spilling down her back and adding a deep glow to her fiery red hair. Beneath the cloak, Heather had provided a snow white dress, beautiful in its simplicity, the lines accentuating the grace in Megan’s form.

She stood next to Kyle, the old man smiling as his eyes drifted over the strangers who had slowly become family, who had joined a life that had risen from the ashes of the world before. His eyes drifted to the carved wooden cup he held, gazing into the fresh apple cider it contained. Raising it as a toast to the village, he spoke.

“A good harvest and a good life,” he called out, his booming voice met with a loud cheer of agreement from his kin. “This cup holds the fruit of our harvest, the blessings each of us have found within this community, and the promise of more blessings to come. Come!  Let’s give our thanks and be known as family and kin.”

Forming a single-file line that wound around the great hall, each member of the settlement approached Kyle and Megan, drinking from the cup of kinship in turn. Megan would top off the simple, wooden vessel and Kyle would take it, sipping from it first to show that the drink held no ill will. Each would drink in turn, stating what they were most thankful for and what they hoped from the year to come. The old man welcomed each in turn, calling them by name, reminding them that they belonged to a family, that whether they fled adversity to reach their new home or were born within the arms of the settlement, each had found a place where they truly belonged...

Remembering Tomorrow is available for $12.99 from Amazon (or $2 more - autographed and including 2-day priority - shipping directly from us) and in about every ebook flavor known to the modern world for $2.99.  Links to each version of the book - and to the first three chapters of the novel - are found on my personal site, Virtual Coffee.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Remembering Tomorrow

I was driving up the Nestucca River valley on October 22, 2007, when I took this picture. It was mid-morning on a quiet mountain road, so I simply stopped the car without pulling over, hopped out with my camera, and started shooting. This photo was used in creating the cover of my third published novel, Remembering Tomorrow.

I currently have more than a dozen different wallpapers on my site, formatted for both widescreen and standard monitors.  Enjoy! :)

Remembering Tomorrow Wallpaper:
Wallpaper Library:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Follow the Thread

My second novel, The Awakening, was the opening act in a three part tale of the end of the world.  Rather than taking the position of any one religion, the Rebirth trilogy weaves "...Hopi, Mayan and Christian prophesies with current events and the theories of quantum physics. The Awakening is a novel of the ending of a reality, of the reclaiming of a dimension that we call home. Told from a perspective beyond the filter of mythology, the beginning of the end is shown from a non-religious perspective while embracing the spiritual origins of our own existence."

The second part of the story, A Tide of Shadows, is due out early next summer.  In preparation for the sequel, I've been spending a tremendous amount of time with my nose buried in international news sites, defense and scientific journals, and religious texts as I hone the details that herald in the end of reality.

While I won't give away the next portion of the story, this is one trail of bread crumbs that I ultimately discarded.  It can be argued that the following events are one of the threads that lead to the end of the world - threads that the mortals in The Awakening were encouraged to find and unravel.  Had the teenager, Jenny, brought the following to the attention of Nathaniel (one of the Old Ones), he would have acknowledged its validity and stated that it was too large for them to personally address.  If The Awakening seemed a little "too real" for comfort, it's because the storyline that connects all three books is backed up with history, current events, and the latest discoveries from the scientific community.

Follow the thread...

The first piece...
"Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: "'Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!'" ~ Revelation 18:10
The second piece...
"Babylon... was an Akkadian city-state (founded in 1867 BC by an Amorite dynasty) of ancient Mesopotamia, the remains of which are found in present-day Al Hillah, Babil Province, Iraq, about 85 kilometers (55 mi) south of Baghdad." ~ Wikipedia

The third piece...
Distance between Baghdad (Iraq) and Tehran (Iran): 431.11 miles

The fourth piece...
"The IAEA acknowledges that some of the activities set out in its annexe may have civilian as well as military applications, but it says that 'others are specific to nuclear weapons.'  So the agency's grounds for concern are not that Iran conducted "this" activity or had documents on "that" process. The question it is posing is that if Iran's research effort really touched on all these areas, then what else could it have been doing but attempting to develop a bomb?" ~ BBC News (November 8, 2011)

The fifth piece...
"GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney and increasingly popular Newt Gingrich both used a presidential debate on foreign policy to back a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to stop the country obtaining nuclear weapons. Former Massachusetts governor Romney said that if 'crippling sanctions' failed, war would be an option because it is 'unacceptable' for Iran to become a nuclear power, while ex-speaker Gingrich argued the United States should covertly 'take out their scientists,' and 'break up their systems'." ~ The Daily Mail (November 13, 2011)

The sixth piece...
"The US has test-fired a new weapon which can travel at five times the speed of sound, the Pentagon says.  The missile was launched from Hawaii and reached its target on a Pacific atoll 2,300 miles (3,700km) away in less than half an hour.  The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon is part of a programme to build new high-speed long-range missiles. Its aim is to allow the US military to strike targets anywhere in the world within an hour." ~ BBC News (November 18, 2011)

The Awakening is available through Amazon in paperback for $12.99.  It is also available in Kindle, Nook, and various ebook formats for $2.99.  Autographed copies of the trade paperback edition are available through my personal Web site for $15 - which includes two day priority mail shipping anywhere in the United States.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Music Wednesday: Small Venue Shows

If you hear the phrase, "I'm going to a concert tonight," and you instantly think, "$250 a ticket," you're doing it all wrong.  There is an absolute wealth of amazing live performances played year round in countless venues not far from you.  Chances are you haven't heard of all the bands that are playing in your local area.  However, if you're thinking, "If I haven't heard of them, they must be local and suck," you'd be sadly mistaken.

First of all, there are amazing entertainers out there who have yet to get their big break.  That's going to be about half of what's playing on any given night.  One quarter are bands that have signed with major labels and simply haven't broken through onto the charts.  The remainder are often bands that are absolutely huge in other countries, but are relatively unknown here in the States.

About a year ago, I took my wife to see Marina and The Diamonds playing live at a lounge up in Portland.  The opening band was one that we had never heard of, but were pleasantly surprised by their sound.  I believe the concert was on a Wednesday or Thursday night and, having arrived early for dinner (it was Bri's birthday celebration) we found ourselves in the general admission show a bit early, standing where the floor met the edge of the very small stage.  A few weeks later, the single, "My Body," by Marina's opening band, Young the Giant, shot up the charts.  When Bri and I heard it on the radio, we turned and silently smiled at each other as we were literally close enough to reach out and touch the band a short time before.

The video for "My Body" currently has 2.7 million views on YouTube.  Marina's has over 3 million.  I believe the tickets were $14 a piece.

A few years back, I forked out $25 a ticket to take my eldest two children to a rock concert featuring four bands.  The show was headlined by a new alternative metal band called Flyleaf who went on to sell more than 1,000,000 copies of their debut album.  We actually went to see one of the supporting bands, Sick Puppies, who had their song "All The Same" associated with the Free Hugs campaign and hail from Sidney, Australia.

The Free Hugs video featuring the song by the Sick Puppies has received over 70 million views.

But small venue shows aren't simply about getting good live music cheap.  Generally speaking, after their set, the artists will come down to meet the fans and sign autographs.  The opening band of the Flyleaf show was an unsigned group by the name of Resident Hero.  My son, Gavin, was shy but thought the lead singer was really cool and wanted to tell him that.  Imagine the impact on a young boy when the lead singer of a rock band smiles and says, "Kid, YOU'RE the one who is REALLY cool."  Our eldest daughter's fascination with the bass (she's learning to play) as well as her personal style were heavily impacted by Emma Anzai, the bass player and back-up vocalist for Sick Puppies.  Not only did the kids get to meet the band, but each member of Sick Puppies talked with them and signed their tour poster.

On the mellower end of the spectrum, cellist Zoe Keating was playing a show one night where the tickets were three figures a piece - and a solo show at a very small venue the next night for $8 a pop.  As we slowly made our way toward our seats (small venue version), Zoe actually stopped by and talked to those in line, thanking them for coming to the show.  The following is one of the pieces that she played.  Using only her cello, a laptop, and recording equipment, she'll lay down tracks and layer new tracks over the top, creating beautiful acoustic soundscapes.

So how do you find great live shows in your area without breaking the bank?

First, you need to do a little research and find a list of venues in your area that host live music.  We generally go to Portland, Oregon for shows - a city about 40 minutes north of us - simply because they tend to draw bigger acts than our local venues do.  In Portland, we keep our eyes primarily on The Doug Fir Lounge (shows there typically range between $5 and $15 per ticket), Mississippi Studios ($5 to $15), and the Hawthorne Theater ($14 to $25 for a show that usually features between four to six bands).  With their site open in one tab of my browser, I'll open up YouTube in a second tab and start searching for artists.  Some will catch my ear, some won't; and some will make me say, "Wow!" From the Wow List, I compare our schedule, finances, and decide who would like to go with me - because I'm the type that prefers to share the concert experience with someone else.

Big venues with household-name bands are a lot of fun.  But if you add up the price of the seven tickets that I purchased for the three concerts listed above, my total cost was $119 - less than the amount of a single ticket to many larger shows.  And we got to meet the bands.  And my son had the lead singer of a rock band boost his confidence.  And my daughter was inspired to play bass.  And an autograph tour poster hands on my daughter's wall.  And my wife had an amazing birthday.  And we have a wealth of amazing memories we shared together.  And we can continually say, "Remember when we saw them and were so close we could touch the band?" when we're listening to the radio.

None of that is something you can put a price tag on.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Progress

Each week, I'm sharing new (and free) desktop wallpaper created from my photography.  This week's offering is called Progress.

All of my photographs are shot "as is." I know that many photographers adjust the scene so it's "just so," but I think life speaks more clearly when we allow it to speak for itself. This is exactly how I found the moment when I arrived, camera in hand. One of the things that I like about this photograph is that it can support so many views - those opposing the loss of nature in the name of progress, those who believe that one thing must end for another to be born, and those who believe that, even imperfectly, one world crosses over into the next.

I currently have more than a dozen different wallpapers on my site, formatted for both widescreen and standard monitors.  Enjoy! :)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Secret to Chocolate Chip Cookies

In my little corner of the world, I'm known for my chocolate chip cookies.  My wife's co-workers request them for potlucks.  The kids tell strangers in stores about the treats.  Since I'm a sharing kind of guy, here's not only the recipe that I use - but the secrets that I employ so the cookies turn out "just right."

Jeffrey's Chocolate Chip Cookies


1 cup butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
2 eggs
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons hot water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bag of Ghiradelli Milk Chocolate Chips
1 bag of Ghiradelli Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Cream together the butter, white sugar, until smooth.  Blend in molasses.
  3. Stir in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla.  Stir in salt.  Stir in baking soda.
  4. Thoroughly stir in flour.
  5. Add chocolate chips and stir into mixture.
  6. Add water (as necessary) a small amount at a time until the batter returns to a smooth, almost sticky consistency. The batter should not be runny.
  7. Drop by large spoonfuls (about the size of a golf ball) onto ungreased cookie sheet.
  8. Bake for approximately 12 minutes in the preheated oven.
  9. Remove from oven and let cookies sit on the heated cookie sheet until cookies begin to deflate.
  10. Remove from cookie sheet and allow cookies to fully cool.
The original recipe included three steps in the directions, but I've worked all of the tips into it.  Here are a couple of notes.

Secret #1:  I always add the chocolate chips at the very end, mostly because there's a lot of chocolate chips in these cookies and the batter gets hard to stir after you've added them in.  Partly that's for ease, partly because you can stir the batter much more thoroughly without the chips in the way.

Secret #2:  The batter should not be lumpy.  That's why I add the water in Step 6.  Your batter should NOT look like this...

But should look like this....

Please note, the chips have not been added yet. (see Secret #1)  After the chips have been added, the dough will look like this...

When moved to the cookie sheet to bake, the "drops" of cookie dough will be about the size of a golf ball and look like the following picture.  There's no need to roll them into balls with your hands, just take a portion of batter and place it on the cookie sheet.

Secret #3:  The cookies should be just the slightest bit undercooked when they come out of the oven.  You do not want them to start turning brown around the edges or they've cooked for too long.  What you want is for the cookies to have smoothed out and very slightly changed color - its very subtle.  It's easiest to call them "done" when you first start to notice any of the peaks or edges turning golden brown.

When you leave the cookies on the cookie sheet for those two to three minutes, they'll actually deflate.  You know they're ready to move to a cooling rack when they've gone from looking smooth and puffy (above) to seeming as if someone stuck a pin in them and let the air out...

The cookies will continue to change shape as they cool (having been removed from the rack) and will end up looking like this...


These are soft, yummy, and not the slightest bit crunchy - just the way that I like my chocolate chip cookies.  Part of the secret is in the ingredients.  Both the quality and quantity of chocolate chips (the original recipe called for two cups worth) as well as the additional vanilla really make a difference.  The rest is making sure that the ingredients are thoroughly blended and keeping in mind that the cookies continue to bake - both from the heat of the cookie tray and from their internal heat - after you remove them from the oven.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New Music Wednesday: Róisín Murphy

My wife, Briana, and I were watching a show together when the closing song caught my ear.  The slow grooving track turned out to be, "Truth," a single by Handsome Boy Modeling School, a band that was together from 1999 to 2006. However, I quickly discovered that it wasn't Handsome Boy that had grabbed my attention, but a guest singer that the track featured.

Finding new music is often a quest, following one clue to the next in hopes that it will lead you to the prize.  And after such a process, I came across the group Moloko, which dissolved in 2004.  Like numerous bands, Moloko was formed around a romantic relationship.  At the time, the singer, Róisín Murphy, had no experience as a professional vocalist.  Her partner, Mark Brydon, on the other hand, had extensive experience as a musician, composer, arranger, remix artist, producer, and recording engineer.

Releasing full albums between singles between 1995 and 2002 (and singles up to 2005), Brydon and Murphy eventually went their separate ways with Murphy, has pursuing a solo career.  Unfortunately, I don't like her music as a solo artist nearly as well as I enjoy her work with Moloko.  Her voice is still the remarkable contralto that it has always been, but the music itself seems clichéd.  Like many relationships, Moloko was greater than the sum of its parts.  Without Brydon, Murphy has a beautiful voice, but the spirit of the music is missing.  It's not bad - it's just that I've heard so many bands that sound exactly the same way that I couldn't pick any of her tracks out of a crowd.  Murphy's solo career brings to mind a song from a movie that sets the scene but that you don't think about again once the film has ended.  It's a subtle distinction, but one that speaks volumes when you remember that I discovered her as part of a soundtrack where she stood out so clearly that I began this quest to find her music.

While she hasn't released an album since 2007, she has been the featured vocalist on numerous tracks, the most recent being "Boadicea" by Mason.

Moloko - or in this case, Róisín Murphy - isn't the first artist that I've followed who was stronger at the beginning of her career than at the end.  Nor is she the first member of a popular group to find that going solo wasn't a major step forward on their musical path.  However, seeing her appear as the featured vocalist for other artists fills me with hope.  She's strongest as a singer with others creating the framework to show off her voice.  Here's hoping that there's another collaboration in her future that puts her voice squarely in the spotlight once more.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I woke up one morning, a few weeks back, to discover that it had rained the night before. Little droplets of water were scattered everywhere - even on a spider's web in our front yard. I shared a different version of this photo a couple of weeks ago in a piece that I call, Connections.

You can find the photographed, sized for your desktop, by browsing over to virtual-coffee/wallpaper/

I'm doing my best to share free desktop wallpaper, based on my photography, each Monday.  While I'll miss a week here and there, more likely that not if you swing by at the beginning of each week, I'll have something new for you.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I'll Never Use Brown Sugar Again

In my little corner of the world, I'm known for my cookies.  While the kids readily claim "Dad's the best cook ever," they will actually start conversations with strangers and argue that their dad makes "the best cookies in the world!"  What's funny is that I stick to the classic three varieties - chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and peanut butter - and never venture outside of that trio of treats.

Yesterday, I decided to whip up a batch of peanut butter cookies.  (Did I mention that I love to cook?  When you actually enjoy cooking - or in this case, baking - sometimes you just get the urge to go make something.)  As I gathered the ingredients together, I discovered that we were out of brown sugar.  The last thing I wanted to do was go to the store.  Going to the store does not equal baking cookies!  So I jumped online and, after reading several options for substitutes for brown sugar, I chose one that I liked and gave it a try.
To create one cup of brown sugar, combine one cup of regular sugar with 1 1/2 tablespoons of molasses.
That seemed simple enough.

We use raw organic sugar and I knew that we had molasses on hand.  Rather than combining the two ingredients together on the side, I simply added the molasses (and the extra cup of sugar) to the cookie dough and stirred them into the mix as I do with the other ingredients.

When presented with the eye test, the "no brown sugar" peanut butter cookies looked fine and the kids got the first one fresh from the oven from each batch.  (We have a tradition in our house where I always break the very first cookie off the baking sheet and the kids have to help me "hide the evidence.")  However, while the peanut butter cookies looked normal, there was a secret waiting to be discovered.

I'll usually have a single cookie out of the first batch.  I love cookies (chocolate chip is my personal favorite), but I get even more enjoyment in baking them for someone else and watching them savor the taste.  In the "no brown sugar" batch, I've had four since last night.  This morning, my wife, Bri, confessed, "I don't usually care for peanut butter cookies, but these may be my favorite cookies ever."  After slipping a cookie in the kids' lunches, there are less than a half-dozen cookies left on the plate.  They're absolutely flying out of the kitchen.  What started as a simple substitution for brown sugar has became a cookie baking secret.  The flavor is significantly better than my normal approach.  Now that I know the secret, I'll never use brown sugar again.

Since I love to cook, each Thursday I'll be offering tips, tricks and recipes that I rely on when I'm working in the kitchen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

New Music Wednesday: Ed Sheeran

It's no secret that I tend to look to music for inspiration in my own writing.  Ani Difranco's "...I roll over and taste the pillow with my grin," is still one of my all-time favorite phrases.  Sarah McLachlan paints a haunting picture with, "The night is my companion and solitude my guide."  Peter Gabriel's, "In your eyes I see the doorway to a thousand churches," is a modern classic.

It's amazing that a twenty year old musician can stand in their company - and set the lyrical standard - even if he does look a lot like the movie version of Harry Potter's Ron Weasley...

Born in West Yorkshire, Ed Sheeran began his musical career at a very early age and began recording when he was 14 years old.  At the age of 18, with two independently produced albums and an EP under his belt, he moved to London and began playing at every opportunity.  In 2009, he played 312 gigs - to audiences as small as five people.

In 2010, he released his critically acclaimed Loose Change EP, which included what would become his debut single, "The A Team."  The video for the single, a haunting, beautifully written piece about drug addiction, was cost £20 to make.  While he has yet to be discovered by US audiences, "The A-Team" is currently #14 on BBC Radio 1's Official Top 40 Singles Chart.

Proving he's not a one-hit wonder (given the path he followed to reach this point of his career, it really shouldn't be a question), "Lego House" is currently at #18 on the same chart.  Lyrically, it's a little heavier handed than "The A-Team," but Mr. Sheeran once again demonstrates that he paints with words.

When I write, I approach each chapter as a song on a larger album.  While the entire album (or book) needs to be cohesive, I want each chapter to have a certain feeling that is all its own, much like the individual tracks on a CD.  That's one of the reasons why I turn to music as inspiration.  Not only does it create an emotion that I can channel into my own writing, but the way that a songwriter approach his or her lyrics shows me new ways of crafting my own prose.

Since music is such a huge part of my life, on Wednesdays my blog will be devoted to sharing the music that inspires me.  Much of it will be new to you as I'm constantly seeking out new artists in my offline world.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What In The World?

The world of Tapestry, the setting for my first novel (Escaping Destiny) and its sequel (Lost Within, February), has a history that predates the novels by several years.  Both the geography and the history of the world were well-defined before a single word found its way onto the page.  Since I rarely approach anything in the "normal" fashion, let's start from the end of our tale and work backwards to the beginning.

The current map of the world of Tapestry is based off of a map originally commissioned in the late 1800s.  I actually planned this approach in advance, the lands in my novels mirroring real world geography.  If you consider that the Firedrake River is Tapestry's equivalent of the Columbia River that separates Oregon and Washington, the entire map suddenly comes into focus.  There are hints of this connection between the two worlds in both Escaping Destiny (the Gate and maat's close regulation of the artifacts that pass through it) and November's Remembering Tomorrow.  While the latter title is a stand-alone novel, one of the characters appears in both novels.  This connection is also hinted at in the original first chapter of Escaping Destiny, which was deleted during the editing process but appears as an extra on my personal site.

Because I chose to use geography from our world for the world of Tapestry, my maps were already drawn for me - they simply needed some serious first aid.  While I'm completely self-taught, I'm very comfortable in Photoshop and removed all of the place names and the creases in the map before adding my own locations.  (It wasn't quite as simple as it sounds as I had to rebuild the geographic features that had been covered by folds and text.)

You'll also notice that there are only a handful of locations indicated on the large map.  The map reflects all of the locations that are mentioned in Escaping Destiny, the entire tale taking place in only three locations: Cathedral, Raven's Roots, and Node.  With each subsequent novel, more of the map will be filled in.  The series is currently projected to encompass eight books, but that's the minimum estimate.  Lost Within will add additional locations, both in the mortal realm and the lands of the fae.  The third title, A War of Ghosts, will complete approximately a quarter of the map by the final page of that novel.

And so ends Act One.

The Tapestry Chronicles is currently projected to include three acts, which would logically extend the story to nine books.  That's why eight is the minimum number of titles.  I don't want to promise more than I'll deliver.  That said, there is a lot of story left to tell.

Like numerous fantasy authors, I got my start running tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs).  As early as junior high (which was a very long time ago), you could find me with paper and a pencil, a group of friends, and a collection of geometric dice, weaving stories out of pure imagination.  Much like R.A. Salvatore did with his New York Times Bestselling series about Drizzt Do'Urden, the books in the Tapestry Chronicles flesh out a preexisting world.  Mr. Salvatore's focused on the Forgotten Realms campaign from 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons.  I'm expanding on a game world of my own.

Between the second and third books in the Tapestry Chronicles, I'll be releasing the core rules to a desktop RPG simply called Tapestry.  Each novel will introduce new character races and classes as well as playable adventures that go beyond the stories in the novels and continue to flesh out the world.  I'm actually very proud of the mechanics as they are simple to use, address countless complaints that I've had with RPGs over the years, and give the player unprecedented control over their character, their skills and development, and how their own story unfolds.

My intent is to establish the core rules, create modules and expansions based on the novels, and open up the development of additional aspects of the game to the desktop gaming community.  Think of it as an open-source RPG.

So there you have it.  If the world of Tapestry seemed to come alive in the pages of Escaping Destiny, it's because there is so much more to the world than appeared on the printed page.  Lost Within will introduce new portions of the world including new races and classes.  After all, what's a fantasy roleplaying game without the ability to play a character who wields magic or is capable of healing your party?

And like everything else I create, expect the unexpected.  Lost Within intentionally shatters some existing paradigms in the fantasy genre, especially where sorcerers and healers are concerned.  I'm excited to share more of the story of Tapestry with you this coming February - and a game centered around the world later this summer.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Pretties

I've been exploring some new concepts in my photography, experimenting a bit with color and light.  Except for cropping and tweaking the exposure settings, I historically don’t manipulate my photographs.  There’s no posing, staging, or anything artificial about them, so working consciously to set up a photograph and play with the color is very new to me.

Last week, I took a photograph of a spider’s web covered with raindrops and ran it through Photoshop.  After inverting the image (essentially turning it into a color negative), I adjusted the color to shift the photograph into blues and purples.  This was the result.

This week’s photo was pure happenstance.  I was finishing off a glass of water than had sat overnight at my bedside when a small Tibetan salt lamp shined through the bottom of the vessel.  After drinking the last of the water, I grabbed my camera, held the bottom of the drinking glass up to the salt lamp, and took this photo through the mouth of the glass looking toward the base.

You can find the photo of the spider’s web, called “Connections,” optimized for your computer desktop at

The second photo, Oculus, also offered as free desktop wallpaper, can be found at

I realize that I’ve been absent from the blog for awhile, but I promise I’ve been working my @$$ off.  My third novel this year, Remembering Tomorrow, comes out on November 11th.  (The first three chapters are online.)  In January, I’ll be publishing my first non-fiction book, How to Save the World: A Traditionally Trained Shaman Insight On Our Next Step.  I’ve lost fifty pounds and five inches in my waist since June by following my No Excuses Workout.  (Before and after photos will post around the middle of December – I'm wearing my Gap jeans with the 31 inch waist again, but I still have another inch to go to hit all my goals.)  Add a move to a new house in the mix and the beginning of the school year, and it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to move my schedule around enough to begin regularly blogging again.

That said, I'm have a three-days-a-week blogging schedule in place, so hopefully I won't be such a stranger from this point forward.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Neskowin

We're still in the midst of unpacking, but I'll begin blogging again soon.  Expect a whole lot of homemade recipes and down-to-earth how-to as we embrace the opportunities provided by our new home.  (Published books are still available and new titles are coming - but there's much more to our world than just writing and publishing.)  Until then, here's a photograph that I took nine days ago near a country school in Oregon's Neskowin Valley...

You can find links to download this wallpaper at my site as well as previous offerings on my wallpaper page.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Story in a Box

Many of the pieces of my novels come from personal experience and stories told by the world around me.  I spend a lot of time simply watching birds, animals, people, clouds; each has a story to tell.

This morning, as I walked my wife, Bri, to her bus stop, we spied a box sitting on the corner of a street.  On the way home, I stopped, carefully opened it, and took a handful of photographs.  Something as simple as this box weaves a much larger tale when I look at it through a writer's eyes.  I thought I'd share part of my writing process with those of you who enjoy putting words on a page.

What story does this box offer you?  What secrets does each item in the box - crayons, a vase, the books - whisper to you?  How do those secrets form a single tale?  How did the box come to rest on this particular corner?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Moving In

We're still hard at work unpacking and moving in.  Well, most of us are, anyway...

Our "decorative cat" (if he's not eating, he pretty much just sleeps) is apparently quite comfortable with the new house.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

We're Movin' On Up...

We're in the final stages of moving from one home to another on this end.  The move represents a significant upgrade in every area of our lives.  Once we're unpacked and settled in I'll blog about the entire journey.  Until then, here are aerial photographs of our old neighborhood as compared to our new neighborhood.  The respective houses are shown in each of the photographs.

The Old Neighborhood:  corner liquor store, an "adult" store a block and a half away, half-way houses, hordes of mice, and police on your block every week making drug busts.

The New Neighborhood: forests, fresh air, friendly neighbors, and within easy walking distance to the kids' schools.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The No Excuses Workout - Day 21 (End of Phase One)

What happened to Day 20?

I took the day off.

My plan this week was to take Saturday evening and Sunday morning off from my workout.  We're in the middle of moving and my wife and I both had things we needed to take care of in the morning around the same time.  So I left (on foot) for Office Depot (about an hour's walk away from our house) and she picked me up there when she was free.  We spent the rest of the day packing, lifting boxes and carrying them to the staging area at the front of our house.  (With four kids we have a lot of stuff.)  By the end of the day I was tired. So....

I took my entire twenty-four hour break on Saturday.

The great thing about the workout is that it's flexible.  What would I do if I took today off as well?  Rather than increasing with an additional workout, I'd do the last workout I had completed over again.  What if I took ANOTHER day off?  I'd do the same workout, but I'd drop all of the exercises by two repetitions.  This process continues down to ten reps, which is the floor of the final workout.

And speaking of final workouts - this is the end of Phase One.

I've lost a chunk of weight.  (I don't use scales, but I'm down a full size.)  I'm much stronger (I've packed on the lean muscle), my endurance is way up, and I can stand up, bend at the waist, and touch my knuckles to the floor - which means I've improved my flexibility as well.

Not bad for three weeks of work.

If I simply continued Phase One, my weight would continue to drop, my fitness level (strength, endurance, and flexibility) would continue to increase, and I'd find myself living a very healthy lifestyle.  It's really just that simple.  If you want to get in shape - and stay there - this is one very effective way of doing so.   To think it all began with a single exercise and a one block walk.

Phase Two (which I won't clutter my blog with but will check in with from time to time) is the journey from "fit" to "athelete."  By the end of Phase Two, I'll be well-prepared to join an amateur sports league, competitively run 10Ks, or any activity that requires a higher level of fitness.  Phase Three is the journey from "athelete" to my body's optimnal fitness level.  The "rules" change slightly in each Phase.  For instance, in Phase Two I'll be taking weekends off completely to allow my body time to recover.  In Phase Three I'll be working on overlapping three and six week cycles - which alternate between pushing my body's limits and allowing it time to breathe.

My ultimate goal?  I'm working on that.  The waist in my jeans reads "34" and those in my closet read "30."  I'm tired of my "closet jeans" feeling lonely.  So that's part of it.  I have a couple of crazy ideas that, if I actually go for them, I'll YouTube them and share them that way.  Shhhhh... they're a secret.

So that's it.  The No Excuses Workout is my way of getting incredibly fit with no equipment, no gym, and no expenditure of money.  The entire Phase Three workout (which I'm doing today) is listed below.  In all honesty, this is all I would have to do to achieve and maintain a very good level of fitness.  And to think, it all started three weeks ago on Day One with a walk around the block and a single exercise.

AM Workout

Table Top - three times (from Day One)
Hug and Release - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Three)
Elevation - three times (from Day Four)
Lift - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Five)
Tic Toc - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Six)
Plank - three times (from Day Eight)
Tiny - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Nine)
Hang - three times (from Day Ten)
Bend - three times (from Day Eleven)
Reach - three times (from Day Thirteen)
Pushup - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Thirteen)
Frog Crunch - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Sixteen)
Alternating Crunch - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Seventeen)
Reverse Crunch - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Eighteen)
Standard Crunch - one time, twenty repetitions  (from Day Nineteen)

New Exercise: Cobra

Cobra is another yoga move and one that I like to use to end a long series of abdominal work.  I roll over on my stomach and keep my knees and feet together.  Moving my hands into the same position they'd be in to do a Push-Up, and keeping my hips firmly planted on the ground, mattress, or mat, I slowly raise my upper body and arch my back in a slow, gentle movement.  When I get to the limit of what is comfortable for me, I hold it.  The entire "move and hold" process take a count of thirty.  I'll do Cobra three times.


Between 20 to 60 minutes of Walking With Purpose.  On days when my schedule is packed or I haven't had the chance to go walking until the end of the day, I'll do twenty.  On days when I'm free (a sunny Saturday, for example, I'll go for up to an hour).

PM Workout

Twist (No Shout) - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Two)
Bobble Head - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Three)
Too Sexy - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Four)
Popeye - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Five)
Kick Back - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Eight)
Flight - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Nine)
Pump - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Ten)
Chair one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Eleven)
Good Morning - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Fourteen)
Lower - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Fifteen)
Side Punch - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Sixteen)
Front Punch - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Sixteen)
Cross Punch - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Seventeen)
Elbow Strike - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Eighteen)
Upper Cut - one time, twenty repetitions (from Day Nineteen)

New Exercise: Dodge

Starting in the same position as the other punches, I imagine a punch is being thrown at my head.  I "dodge" to  the left in a gentle motion, bending quickly at the waist, before straightening and bending to the left.  Bending to the right, then the left, then returning to center is one repetition.  The key to this entire exercise isn't the speed with which it's done, but keeping my navel pulled toward my spine and my abdominal muscles flexed and engaged throughout.  I'll do it one time for twenty repetitions.