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.