Discovering America

I recently returned from an extended trip around the country with my son Ben. We traveled a huge loop around the perimeter of the country, with the help of Amtrak's Railpass. Starting in Albany, we looped to Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, New Orleans, Washington DC, and then home again, after riding about 6,500 miles of train track in varying levels of comfort.

The day we headed out, packing light

Great art
 Great zoo
 Great aquarium
We stayed in a wonderful AirBnB
It's a beautiful city, and we explored and enjoyed it thoroughly
Then we were back on the train for about two days,
in a roomette, on the lovely run from Chicago to Seattle
 The Museum of Pop Culture was fantastic, this is Isaac Asmiov's typewriter
We explored all around the public market and piers 
 We visited the space needle, even closer than this picture indicates
 The harbor cruise was lots of fun, and the not-great weather kept the crowds down
Friends of ours took us on an underground exploration of Seattle beneath the streets
 Another, shorter leg, down the coast, to San Francisco
 We loved the aquarium
 A trip out to Alcatraz was both a fun boat ride,
and surprisingly one of our favorite excursions of the whole trip
Exploring the waterfront by e-scooter was a cool way to cover lots of ground
and see things we'd have otherwise missed. 
 We caught up with a friend of mine from grad-school who works at Google, and got a really cool tour
A harbor cruise that went out and under the Golden Gate Bridge was a highlight,
and well worth the sunburns we both got
 LA's aquarium was a fun surprise
 We loved out visit to the LaBrea Tar Pits, especially wandering around the park and finding spots where the tar is pushing up through the ground outside of the display areas and museum
We went to see the Chinese Theater 
 and were lucky enough to see a fun movie in the grand old moviehouse
 We had a late-night departure from the famous train station,
pushing on across the south to New Orleans
 We stopped in Houston long enough to grab lunch at their aquarium
 Our AirBnB in New Orleans was wonderful and located perfectly, along one of the streetcars, which we rode up and down to the French Quarter and the other things we saw and did in the Big Easy
 We took a river cruise, which was fun and gorgeous,
with a great band playing on one of the lower decks
In DC, in addition to seeing some museums and monuments and wandering the National Mall, we were able to connect with My Aunt Anne for a morning, which was great, after too long a time.

We made a point of planning ahead for the things we wanted to see and do and eat, trying to take full advantage of each 3-night layover in the major stops on our trip. I was able to do a bunch of reading and writing on the trains, and to a lesser extent during downtime we would build into our days in the cities we visited. I was mostly successful (I think) in balancing learning with fun for Ben. I don't have much more time with him in this way, this flavor of relationship, so I wanted to cram in as much as possible, staying just short of "TOO MUCH, DAD!"

It was a fantastic trip, a great time to spend with my son, and an interesting opportunity for both of us to broaden our perspectives on this wondrous and diverse country we're living in.

If you're interested in seeing more pics from the trip, you can follow this LINK to a photo album on FB, which has hundreds of my best pics from each stop.

It's given me lots to think, and write, about ... I just finished the second semester of my MFA program at Goddard, and I'm using the brief pause to circle back to Oasis, the fantasy novel that's been languishing on the backburner for nearly a year now. 

Thanks for stopping by! - JS


Neurodiverse Characters in Fiction

I gave a talk at Landmark College, located in Putney, Vermont, this week, and it was recorded by the local TV station for local broadcast.

The talk was titled: "Neurodiverse Characters in Fiction: Perspectives Beyond the Vanilla"

It was a fun talk to give, and a great place to give the talk for a number of reasons:

  1. I love talking about writing
  2. I enjoy writing, and reading, neurodiverse characters in fiction
  3. Landmark College's student population is largely comprised of neurodiverse learners, a fair number of which enjoy reading and writing
I'm not the best public speaker in the world, but it felt as though everyone had a good time at the talk, and I'm hoping to give more similar talks in the future, and continue my association with Landmark as well.


The Last Miles

He came to live with us about a decade ago, low points in our lives, each for our own reasons, from which we all saved each other in a mutual rebuilding, the kind you only see where dogs are involved.

Miles was back in the isolation section of our favorite Humane Society on earth ... he jumped, he barked, a lot. In one of those cruel feedback loops of confinement, he could never really share his essential Miles-ness in that place, but we saw enough that we knew his weirdness would fit in with our weirdness, and really, what else is love but that matching?

Now, at the tail-end of our time together, I'm thinking about what made him such a good friend.

He's seen me at my worst and laziest and grumpiest and most selfish, and always thought somehow that I was worth the effort ... worth seeing through to the next chapter.

I don't know that he was right, but he was always there, that next day or week, to go for a walk, insistent that so long as we've got kibble and water and a place to sleep out of the cold, things'll be OK.

Besides loving us, he's welcomed each dog as they come into our life and home, tutoring them in his own brand of fierce and insular love (he's never really warmed to people outside our immediate family, but I think his pre-Sheffield life informs this habit).

We've always joked that he's all heart, and in the end this is proving to almost literally be true. Mile was diagnosed with advanced Cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) almost three years ago, given a life expectancy prediction of 6-18 months. 

He's had fainting spells in times of excitement/stress for the last few years, but in the last year has begun slowing and fading; precipitously in the last month.

The wonderful thing we see is the other dogs in the house, Puck and Olive, stepping up to keep him company, and cutting him slack in pack duties.

Nobody in the house has any doubt about how this story ends, but we're all watching and thinking about and remembering and loving Miles, working to make his ending both good and right, without edging into maudlin.

On the inside, in a place I hope I'm hiding from Miles and Gail and Ben and the other dogs, a cold and calculating part of me that I both hate and am grateful for is doing the math, the cost/benefit, on the days  that he, and we, have left ... I want him to enjoy each day in the manner of that Irish toast I've heard at weddings: "May you live as long as you want and never want as long as you live!".

I spend, or rather a chunk of my brain spends, probably too many moments each day thinking about how to balance joy and pain and love of family and the end of everything ... I owe Miles my best efforts in this department, but beyond that I'm far enough along my own trip on the bell-curve that I'm interested in the subject for my own reasons.

Miles is family. He saved my life with love. I owe him no less, more if I can manage it.


My Personal Hogwarts

 I just returned from my second residency at Goddard College, in pursuit of my MFA in Creative Writing; it was mostly perfect, and definitely a magical experience.

It was a frozen and snowglobe-y world up in Plainfield, between buildings and classes on Goddard's pretty campus, exhausting also; once I crunched down my driveway at home, I spent the majority of the MLK weekend couching with my wife and dogs (possibly with my dogs and wife, opinions vary).

 I've been thinking about the residency, thinking about school and work and teachers and classmates and the high-tension creative energies that saturate Goddard, the residency, and my life since I began formal studies in writing.

I wrote "formal studies" because once I began writing in earnest, I took it upon myself to read good books (both fiction and writers writing on craft), and also writing/sharing/critiquing creative work with other writers ... it worked, it helped, but I found myself wanting the next thing, the next step.

Goddard was that next step for a number of reasons:

  1. to push myself into learning beyond what my own program of studies was capable of
  2. to be forced to look at the things about my writing I didn't want to look at
  3. to facilitate networking with other writers of multiple flavors and skill-levels
  4. to externalize some of the expectations and deadlines, upping the stakes

Goddard has done all of that, and more, in the two residencies I've been through so far, along with the semester they sandwiched. 

By definition, my previous self-directed program of study and growth was limited by the outer bounds of my own skull ... the addition of Goddard, and all of the other smart and wacky and "think different-y" skulls in residence there pushed and pulled me into new territory. 

Sometimes, this terra incognita was terrifying; maybe it has to be, is supposed to be. 

With the help of a brilliant adviser, insightful classmates, and the slightly unwelcome, or at least daunting (but necessary, and ultimately beneficial) gravity pulling us all to share and critique our work, I've seen things in my work that I couldn't, or didn't want to, see before.

I've met and come to love the different, often startling, minds, all hosing each other down with creative juices at Goddard ... a weeklong orgy of words and ideas and craft and art and schlock, all of it served up mostly free of pretense or shame.

The WORK is a binding principle and the crucible in which we forge the new and better versions of ourselves ... we read, we write critically of that which we read, and we create (then edit) new work. 

If all of that above was all that Goddard was, is, will be, then that would be fine, that would be enough - more than enough ... but it's not.

When Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts, what goes on in class accounts for only a tiny piece of his work and growth, and the challenges he faces ... so it is with me and Goddard.

There's a magic in the air from the moment I've arrived for both residencies ... we're all there to celebrate, to birth, to worship, the creative. Each student and teacher, practitioners all, combines their love and fear and dreams into a web of magic like a great dark pool we all swim through for the week.

The magic is born in workshops and advising sessions, but also during meals and late nights in the dorms or exploring the buildings and grounds.

We all get a chance to look behind the curtains of creative minds, our own as well as those of other spell-casters foolhardy enough to weave words into the spells that move and change us.

It's often scary, sometimes painful, occasionally horrible ... if it wasn't, it'd be too safe.

All the best learning comes with scars.

My plan for this semester is to read and annotate 20 books (a mix of fiction and books on the craft of fiction), write a long critical paper of an aspect of Adam Hall's writing I've always loved (not that he's always high-craft, but this aspect of his stories definitely is), and take a deep (uncomfortable) dive into editing & revision beyond what I've done in the past.

The spell we collectively cast last week will protect and empower me until the next residency, this summer ... I can feel it buoying and emboldening me as I reach for that part of my brain where the storyteller lives.

JS, 1/16/18


Just Ask!

I gave a talk for the "Contemporary Environmental Writers" class at Paul Smith's College yesterday; everyone, myself included, had a great time. 

Photo Credit: Deb Naybor
I love doing this sort of thing, and wish I did them more, so it occurred to me to make the point that might not already be clear:

Ask me ... I'd love to come and give a talk at your school or library or bookclub!

I love talking about my books. I love talking about writing. I love talking about the Adirondacks. I love talking with people who love books and writing and reading. 

I've literally never had a bad time at any of the talks I've given, or wished I'd done something else instead ... just ask me and I bet we can work something out.

I've talked with people in events hosted by libraries and bookclubs and classroom teachers and bookstores, and everyone is always left smiling and ready for more. Sometimes I get paid, sometimes I sell a bunch of books, and sometimes I get fed and watered; once in a while it's all three, but I'll let you in on a secret ... I have a good time, and am doing my job as a writer no matter what.

In this instance, I was able to drop off some books with local bookstores in need of a resupply, exchange my son's rental skis from last season, get in a night of camping with our new dog Olive, and do this talk at Paul Smith's College ... it was a win from any angle or viewpoint.

If you're a reader or writer or librarian or teacher or bookstore owner and would like me to come talk with your group, please ask and I'm sure we can work something out.

If you're in the area, please join me for my next talk at the Keene Public Library this coming Saturday (10/28) at 1pm, for a discussion of NaNoWriMo.




A Lifetime Later ....

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working as a Special Education teacher in Lake Placid, NY. It was the beginning of the school year, and I accompanied the 7th grade, and one student with ASD in particular, to a nearby low-ropes course for a bonding experience to help the kids and teachers get to know each other. The morning began as these things do: awkward sharing activities, jocks excelling at physical challenges while the rest struggle, thrown pinecones, wondering about where the bathroom is. The student I was working most closely with was doing better than expected, participating in most activities to some extent, and otherwise enjoying the woods. I saw my role primarily as that of social-lubricant and relief valve, working mostly at being a non-entity that gave him and his peers gentle nudges to keep the experience fun and functional for everyone, taking short walks with him as needed when it seemed stress was building beyond a useful level. We were just getting back from one of these walks when one of the owners of the ropes-course came by and told me that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. I initially assumed that he was briefing me on the scenario that the kids were involved with on the platforms in front of me, but it quickly became apparent that was not the case. We teachers huddled for a moment while the kids stood waiting, a bit nervous at the unexpected interruption, in the woods around us. We decided to continue with the activities on the assumption that it was a horrible accident, but nothing more. When the owner returned a short while later to inform us that a second plane had followed the first, the decision was made to return to school. Much of the next hours were, for me, thankfully, focussed on the young man I was working with; his needs eclipsed mine, and unintentionally helped me be more the person the children needed, and less the selfish person I desperately wanted to be. My whole family, everyone I care about in the world, live in ‘The City’, and it was long hours before I heard from any of them that they were alive, much less all right. My student, and the other students in the bus, then later, in my classroom, had needs, were scared and upset; that gave me something to think about, and do, in the first hours as everyone in the world found out what was happening in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. I went home that day a different man than the one I’d been on leaving, in much the same way the world was different from morning to night. My son Ben was born a year later, perhaps in some measure a hopeful middle finger raised and waved against those who would hurt my loved ones and the city of my birth; but now we’ve been at war his whole life. We seem to be at war with all those who hate us, but the war-machine generates hatred faster than it can be stamped out; the fire is spreading, getting away from us, more every day. I remember the world before 9/11. My son has never known that world; will never know that world. The best I can do is remember that world, remember what led us to 9/11, and try to wring a lesson from the endless killing and hate simmering, occasionally boiling over, around the world since that morning; I don’t know how to make the world into the place I want to give Ben. I wish that knowing I want a better world for him was enough.

JS, 9/11/17


2 Nootropics That Can Improve Your Writing

I'm a big fan of coffee from way back, long before I started writing books. I drink a fair amount of coffee every day while I'm writing, and believe it's a useful part of my process.

The downside of coffee is that too much can lead to jitters and being hyper, and once you're into that territory, you are (or at least I am) beyond useful writing for a while. It's important to balance coffee/caffeine intake with water (to stay hydrated) and food (so that caffeine is not the only fuel you are running on) while writing.

A few years ago, a movie (and then a spinoff TV-show) by the name of Limitless  came out. The shows focused on the use of a miracle drug that enhanced a down-and-out writer's abilities to focus and work and produce, not just in his writing, but in every facet of his life. The remarkable effects of the drug were offset by the cruel addiction and withdrawal cycle that users faced; including insanity and death if the supply was cut off.

I'm down with increasing focus and productivity, but like to keep my dangerous addictions entirely fictional, so I did some online reading and research, and found that there is an extensive body of knowledge to be found on the subject of nootropics (drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals).

That research includes some powerful drugs and supplements designed to meet the needs of people with significant learning and function issues, and many of them have side-effects, contra-indications, and other significant drawbacks. Those did not appeal to me, so I kept looking.

I found two that did not have any notable drawbacks, are supported by scientific research as being effective for their stated goals, and wouldn't place me in harm's way through:
  • dangerous or horrible interactions with meds I'm already taking
  • drawing the attention of shadowy multi-national drug cartel assassins

The good news is that the first nootropic found by numerous studies to support focus and productivity is caffeine, which I am familiar with, and choose to administer in the form of coffee.

My preferred vehicle is a SmartPig, which consists of 10 ounces of French Roast, 2 ounces of espresso, 2 teaspoons of sugar in the raw, about an ounce of light cream, and a pinch of sea-salt.

The second nootropic of interest (to me) is L-Theanine, a compound found in green tea. It improves focus and calm and can reduce/smooth the jitters common to high levels of coffee consumption. The only problem with it (from my point of view) is that green tea tastes like hot grass-water. My solution to that problem is that I've added tablets containing a supplement of L-Theanine to my morning meds on the days that I'm writing.

The studies I found supported the use of caffeine and L-Theanine individually, but more importantly together ... when administered together, they have a synergistic effect. They work together to improve cognitive function, attention, motivation, and task efficiency.

Besides the support available for this online, I can tell you anecdotally that it's true. Since adding L-Theanine to my routine, I find that my writing goes better, and that the coffee isn't as likely to get away from me if my hydration and food/fuel balance isn't perfect.

Some of the research that I found online in support of caffeine & L-Theanine taken together:
At the end of the day, you have to decide what works, and what doesn't, in your writing routine.

For years, I used coffee by itself to help me get "waked and wired" for my writing, and was able to write hundreds of thousands of words that way. Since finding L-Theanine, and adding it to my writing regimen, I feel as though my focus and creativity and motivation and productivity have increased.

There seems to be scientific research backing up my anecdotal evidence, and not much in terms of a downside to your at least trying it out.

Good luck in however, and whatever, you write!