Thursday, July 30, 2009

What about Voice Recognition?

Since I’m in a public place at the moment, I have to type, rather than use my computer’s voice recognition program. I wasn’t even aware that this computer was already wired with such a tool until last night. What a pleasant surprise! I’ve thought a lot about using voice recognition when I write. It’s rather like recording your own voice, then having someone else type up the dictation. It takes substantial input to train the computer to type what you’re saying. My diction is taking a quite a beating, as are my memory skills (remembering the appropriate commands). But, hopefully, the effort will be worth it.

In the old days, I wrote my first (and thankfully still unpublished) novel by dictating it into a mini cassette tape recorder I had purchased from Radio Shack. I spent a lot of time in those days, sitting in school parking lots waiting for one or both of my kids to finish whatever practice they happened to be attending. I didn’t own a computer then (we’re talking 1990-91) so I would take my little recorder to work and spend every lunch hour typing up the previous day’s recordings. It took me a year to get that one novel down on paper. Now I’m thinking of doing something similar…talking into a digital recorder that holds 8 hours worth of my ramblings and then putting it in front of the microphone and hitting the playback button!

I wouldn’t be the first. Saying that better writers than I have used voice recognition to get their thoughts down on paper would likely be an understatement. For example, many years ago, NYT best-selling science fiction author, David Weber, managed somehow to break both wrists. Rather than stop writing, he downloaded an early version of Dragon Naturally Speaking and began to dictate all his work. I believe he is using it still (but I think he has upgraded his version). I’ll even add some shameless promotion here by saying that if you are a sci-fi fan and haven’t read his work, start with On Basilisk Station…the first in his best selling Honor Harrington series.

My second published book, The Commoner’s Guide to Dog Breeding, was a collaborative effort with David Savage of England. We did the entire book by e-mail and phone. He would send me these completely strange Word documents. It took me months before I realized he was legally blind! He was dictating to his computer using an early version of IBM’s Via Voice Gold that was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to translate his horribly Cockney accent into actual written word! Figuring out what he was really trying to say was challenging at best. In spite of David’s accent and the poor translation of it by Via Voice Gold, the book was still successfully written and published.

For several years now I have been thinking about purchasing Dragon’s latest version and implementing it on a regular basis. So my questions to all of you are…have you used a speech recognition program? If so, which one and did you find the results satisfactory? Just click on the comment link below and let me know!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Nothing like a Blond Moment!

I came home from work one day last week, took my laptop upstairs to my office and made the usual post-drive pit stop. I noticed something peculiar when I entered the bathroom. There was a bottle of body wash, a bottle of color specific shampoo and a bottle of companion conditioner sitting on the edge of the bathtub. None of these products were mine, and I was pretty certain that my minimalist husband was sticking to his Zest and Pert.

I tossed back the shower curtain and found a used disposable razor sitting on the soap tray. Barring the possibility of having an uber-clean ghost in my house, I made the assumption that my daughter, who no longer lives with us, had been at the house during the day and had, for some unknown reason, availed herself of my shower facilities.

I pulled out my cell phone and gave her a call.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s with coming home to take a shower? Are you having a plumbing problem?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You came here and took a shower,” I replied. “You left your stuff all over my bathroom.”

“Oh. Well, I came over to pick up some clothes out of my old room. I realized I had forgotten to take a shower, so I jumped in.”

“Well that sure explains it,” I said a bit sarcastically.

“Sorry about leaving my stuff all over the bathroom,” she said. “I didn’t mean to forget to move it all back to my room, I guess I was just having a blond moment.”

I started laughing. “I beg to differ,” I said. “Not putting your stuff away was forgetful…but forgetting to take a shower before you left home…now THAT is a Blond Moment!”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Life's Uncertain...

Someone of exceptional vision once said “There are only three certainties in life: birth, death and taxes.” We tend to celebrate births; we all complain about taxes; and we ignore death until it walks up and stares us in the face. Death is so foreign a concept to our conscious minds, that we not only ignore thinking about our own passing, we also avoid dealing with anyone we know whose time here is limited.

Consider this scenario. One of your co-workers has been ill of late. After a series of tests, he is told that he has Stage 4 colon cancer. He continues to work as much as possible, but more and more he is missing from the work environment as he submits to chemo, radiation, and whatever experimental treatments and clinical trials are available. Eventually, he is home bound, only getting out to go to treatments and doctor’s appointments.

At first, it was hard and stressful working with him, because you didn’t want to watch him in his misery. When he stopped coming to work you were conflicted. You missed him, but you were relieved that the stress you were feeling while he was around left with him. You sent a card or some flowers at first. You even stopped by once or twice to visit at the beginning of his “confinement” but as time moved on, you found more and more excuses to be “busy” and you avoided going back.

Then you got the call that your co-worker died…and the guilt set in. You began to question your own ethics. What kind of person am I, anyway? Why didn’t I go back and see him? Why didn’t I call more? I thought I was a good person, but I’m just like everyone else. To assuage that guilt, you promised yourself you’d never do it again…until the next person of your acquaintance was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

There isn’t anything wrong with you. You’re just human. We all are. I faced this question many years ago, and I finally figured out that you don’t have to do much to make a difference, but you do have to do something. I figured out what to do, something that worked for me, and I’ve been doing it for terminally ill friends, acquaintances and even for perfect strangers for 20 years. The key is taking them on only one at a time.

A friend urged me to write a book about my 20 years of experience with my “project” and I’m now shopping that book to agents and publishers alike. I’m not going to ruin the plot for you or tell you how it ends…but I’ll let you know when it is due to be distributed! Keep a good thought for me, because this book could make a significant impact on those who read it, those who take it to heart, and those terminally ill friends and acquaintances who end up on the receiving end of the project.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tiger Boy Rides Again!!!

Every year about this time, when the weather gets hot and sticky, and the thing I most want to do is go take a swim; I open the top drawer of my dresser, reach waaaaaaaaaay back and pull out the gaudiest bathing suit I have ever owned. You will note I say owned, not worn. I lovingly call it Tiger Boy for reasons that will soon become clear. I perform this ritual every summer. Then, unable to actually bring myself to wear it, I place Tiger Boy back in the drawer until the next year.

It all started about 25 years ago. I am what you might call a "substantial" woman, but I was more than twice as "substantial" back then. Buying clothing of any kind was the bane of my existence. I detested it. I made most of my own clothes, simply because I couldn't find anything to fit when I did drag my bulky form to a department store. But there are always occasions when something sewn at home just won't do. And it was one of those times.

So a friend and I made the dreaded trek to the mall and wandered into a store that had a large-women's department. I knew there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that I would find something to fit for the upcoming occasion, but I dragged things off the racks anyway and headed to the dressing room.

I'll never know what possessed me to stop and look at a bathing suit that was hanging on the return clothes rack next to the changing area. It wasn't all that bad looking, at least on the hanger. It was a bit gaudy; it was a very large size and, when I took it in my hands, it was incredibly stretchy. For reasons beyond my own understanding, I decided to try it on.

I went into the dressing room and dutifully donned one item after the next. As expected, I found nothing that looked decent for the occasion. After trying on the last blouse, I took the swimsuit off the hanger. It was a rather disgusting dark yellow color with a narrow black strip down the length of each side and was covered in black tiger strips. I stepped gently into the suit. I was amazed! It went up over the thunder thighs with no problem and gently stretched over my mountainous front and rear girth! It fit! I couldn’t believe it. I was ecstatic! I had not owned a real swimsuit in years!

Then I turned to look in the mirror.


I was staring at a 450-pound tiger atop two pasty white legs! The sheer absurdity of it struck me like a bolt of lightening. I began to roar with laughter.

My friend and the clerk were standing outside the dressing area. "Are you okay" they asked. But I couldn't reply. I was laughing too hard. And as I stood there laughing in front of that mirror, all those lovely tiger stripes began to jiggle up and down. Needless to say, I was literally screaming with laughter, tears streaming down my face. But the harder I laughed the more those pesky tiger stripes jiggled. I am sure you can see how this might be a problem; a vicious circle of laughing and jiggling had begun.

I can't say for certain how long the episode lasted. The clerk knocked at the dressing room door to make sure I was okay, but that just made me laugh all the harder. My friend kept asking what was wrong and got the same hysterical laughter in reply. I do, however, remember what brought the episode to an abrupt halt…

I laughed so hard, I wet the suit.

Barely able to breathe by this time, I changed my clothes. I took the price tags off the swimsuit and emerged from the dressing area with the balled-up suit clutched tightly in my hand.

"I'll take it," I said, handing the price tags to the clerk.

"Here," she said, "let me put that in a bag for you."

"I think I would prefer to do it myself," I replied as I snatched the plastic bag from her hand.

I have no idea if the clerk ever figured out why I was acting so strange, but my friend and I drove home in absolute hysterics. We’ve laughed about the incident for years.

Tiger Boy remains in the back of my drawer, a monument to that episode.

Laundered once, but NEVER worn.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Juan Valdez and High Colonic? Who knew there was a connection?

Research has always been the bane of my writing life. It is, however, an absolute necessity when writing non-fiction. And though you may be secretly snickering about the research I did for Virtual Strangers; sitting smugly with your cup of joe; I will ignore the hisses and whispers long enough to percolate a little true story that gives a whole new meaning to "good to the last drop."

Virtual Strangers is about on-line relationships. In order to research the topic, I interviewed countless Internet users who were involved in such activities. And, in an effort to gain first-hand information, I traveled to several introduction sites and posted my own profiles to gauge the number and types of responses one might expect when choosing this venue for meeting people. These profiles ranged from general and/or suggestive to ones specifically designed to screen out all but those in upper echelon professions with advanced degrees. E-mail responses from each profile were directed to different addresses, making it easier to determine the kind of response to a specific type of profile.

Needless to say I was flooded with responses ranging from the incredibly mundane to the exceptionally bizarre. It was an avalanche of information falling on the head of a rather typical working wife and mother who was, for the most part, ignorant of such things, but gearing-up for a rude awakening. I ingested caffeine by the two-liter bottle as I filtered through the vast numbers of e-mails. Each night, I sorted them, by profile, into three categories: 1) worth contacting to interview, 2) worth answering if I was actually looking, and 3) wouldn't answer on a bet.

The "wouldn't answer on a bet" pile ran the gamut from complete boredom (one-liner's like, "I'm Gary. Write to me, Babe") to those who spent inordinate amounts of time, and page after page, attempting to seduce by extensive descriptions of whatever deviant behavior was their flavor of the week. I had no idea that the variations on this theme were more extensive than the coffee menu at Starbucks! At the end of this sorting exercise, I would take that particular pile of e-mail and toss it into the incinerator with one notable exception.

A single letter caught my eye. The gentleman in question sent me a lengthy dissertation, complete with pictures, regaling me with example upon example of why he thought I should allow him to introduce me to the stimulating and highly erotic pleasures of…coffee-retention enemas??? They were wonderful to share, he said. They cured all his ills, and, as a bonus, had rid him of his migraine headaches.

I have to confess that by the time I finished the reading of it, I was laughing so hard that Depends would have been a welcome addition to my wardrobe. Vivid images of Maxwell House and Folger's Crystals on the same shelf as Fleet's in the drug store came suddenly to mind. Café "oh lay" would require sloshing bags of ground roast hanging from IV poles. Beano would not just be for gas anymore. And, "Oh miss, I'll have a danish and a bag of frothy crappachino, and can I make that a bottomless cup, please?"

Quite frankly, I had experienced a few enemas in my youth, and it would be a cathartic stretch clean around the equator to say I found anything the least bit pleasurable in the procedure. On the other hand, I will say that, as a migraine cure, he might actually have hit on a useful discovery…after all, the amount of caffeine in a pot full of coffee, traveling directly through the intestinal walls into the blood stream has got to do something stimulating, right? In the end, Juan Valdez could become a very rich, headache-free man!

Tears rolling down my face, lungs ready to explode and ribs in dire need of ibuprofen from uncontrollable laughter, I looked at the letter in my hand. This guy was a nut job. I knew that. I should not respond. I knew that, too. But as surely as I knew those things, I knew I would answer it anyway. I could not help myself; such unswerving java loyalty demanded a reply. Through a haze of tears and rib pain I wrote the following…

Dear Mr. Mugbottom (name changed to protect the innocent),

I am writing to thank you for your interest in and response to my profile. I enjoyed reading your letter, and, I have to say that I found your descriptions of the coffee-retention enema procedure, its benefits and results, to be most educational and highly enlightening.

I must tell you, however, that although I, personally, have never had the dubious pleasure of experiencing a coffee-retention enema, considering the smell and taste of the stuff, I can't think of a better place for it.

Would you care for a doughnut with that?

Thank you for your interest.

Needless to say, the gentleman in question did not respond again. But I may never recover. I succumb to instantaneous hysterical laughter every time someone asks, "Wanna go do coffee?"

Friday, July 24, 2009

If You're Gonna Plagiarize, then Plagiarize Only the Best

Several years back, before I was an honest-to-God "published" author, I used to get away from the house, the teens, the husband and the ever-blaring TV by heading off to a local coffee shop in the evening. It was quiet, except on open mic nights, and served one heck of a cup of hot Oregon Chai with whipped cream and cinnamon. It was a great relaxing place to sit undisturbed and edit manuscripts.

Open mic night was always a crapshoot. Sometimes they had good singers and musicians; sometimes they had bad ones, sometimes totally unbelievable ones. But one thing was certain….you never wanted to attend on the one Tuesday night a month when open mic hosted…BAD POETRY NIGHT!

I always avoided bad poetry night like the plague, but once in a while I would forget and end up subjecting myself to some of the most incredibly vile and inane phrases ever to pass for poetry. But since I always had my manuscript in tow, I would sit and edit, ignoring the readers of the bad poems as much as possible.

The woman who ran poetry night was a local, self-proclaimed expert who, if I remember correctly, taught creative writing at one of the local community colleges. She was old, very short and a bit on the trollish side. She had one heck of an imagination, because the themes of all her poems, at least the ones I had the displeasure of hearing, were about her incredible sexual escapades.

On one extraordinarily memorable occasion, I was plodding right along on my editing chores, dutifully ignoring the troll's sex poems. When she finished, she introduced a rather odd little man who lumbered up to the microphone.

"I am going to read Eckle Sates." He said quite loudly.

Oh no! Not another one of these weird ones! I rolled my eyes in despair. The poem didn't even have a decent name…and what the hell was Eckle Sates anyway? I dreaded the upcoming reading and forced myself back to the task at hand…but my focus was blasted out of the water when he began his poetry reading.

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven….A time to be born, a time to die…."

I spit a mouthful of chai across the table. The strange little man proceeded to read the entire of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, Verses 1 to 8, and I snickered the whole time while mopping up the mess with a thick stack of napkins. Eckle Sates indeed!

The poetry fans glared toward my table with obvious disdain. I’m normally not rude, but I honestly could not hide my reaction. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as he finished. My relief was more than little premature. What I heard next sent me skittering to the ladies room to avoid utter and total embarrassment.

One member of the audience stood up and headed toward the stage. He walked up and greeted the strange little man as he stepped away from the microphone, patting him on the back and shaking his hand. In a clear and very serious voice he said...

"Wow, John, that was really great! Keep writing!"

The Great White Hunter and the Groundhog Basketball

Many years ago, my father moved our family from Cleveland to a farm out in Ashtabula County, and we became misplaced city folk. I managed to slip the surly bonds of the farm and move back to the city after I returned from OSU, and there in the big city I met my future husband, Jim.

Now you must understand that Jim was a born and bred city boy, who longed for the country air. He became a Boy Scout early on and was still scouting as an assistant when we met. He also envisioned himself to be a great white who traveled with friends to the dark and dangerous jungles of Western Pennsylvania on an annual hunt for the sacred Bambi each fall. This was something to which I objected vehemently. I didn't mind that he wanted to hunt deer, only that he wanted to go to Pennsylvania to do so. Pennsylvania in deer season is rather like walking through a firing range. Gung-ho idiots from every nearby state go there, hunker in, and shoot anything that moves in their quest for a 12-point buck. I had a lost a friend and classmate a few years earlier in a deer-hunting accident (fellow St. John attendee, Chuck Cott), so I suggested, quite strongly, that Jim drive out to my parents' farm and hunt deer there.

This suggestion was taken well, as it gave him carte blanche on 100 acres of private property. He packed up his trusty weapons and headed out to the farm. I sat smugly in my apartment figuring I had won the round. I'd seen him shoot and was fairly certain he wasn't likely to hit anything anyway, but at least he would be out of harm's way while doing his bit. That was important, since our wedding was only a few weeks away, and I wanted to be make sure he would still be alive for the event. If I had known what was to come, I might have sent him to PA with my blessing!

Late that afternoon, there was a knock on the door. It was Jim with a mile-wide smile on his face, but he was straining to hold his hunting duds away from the front of his neck. I gave him a puzzled look. He walked in, set down his weaponry and, looking like a cat bringing home an offering of a dead bird, said, "Look what I got!" In the game pouch hanging on the back of his hunting vest, and strangling him due to the sheer weight of it, was the largest ground hog I had ever seen. This critter tipped the scales at around 40 lbs.

"I take it you didn't get a deer?" I asked innocently, secretly happy I wouldn't have to deal with a "venison" situation.

"Nope," he replied, "but I got this ground hog and here's a recipe to cook it."

"Cook it??? You want me to cook it? I don't have a pot or pan large enough to cook it!" I was mortified.

"Don't worry," he said. "It will be a lot smaller when I'm done dressing it!"

With an acute sense of dread, I put on a coat and headed to the local hardware store where I purchased a 5-gallon soup pot and a huge, blue enamel, roasting pan with a lid. They were the biggest I could find, but they would have to do.

By the time I got back to the apartment, the deed had been done. There on my kitchen counter on a cookie sheet sat the "hog." It was marginally larger than a fully dressed 20-lb turkey! Jim left for his place, fully intending to come back for a wonderful dinner compliments of his hunting prowess.

I looked at the thing with resignation, picked up the recipe and began to read. The process involved boiling the "hog" in vinegar water for three hours to remove the gamey taste and smell. Then roasting it with herbs and marinade for a couple more hours.
I put the soup pot in the sink, forced the "hog" into the pot and covered it with water. But, with the added weight of the water, I couldn't lift it out of the sink. I grabbed a measuring cup and began bailing the water out of the soup pot until I lowered the level enough to drag the soup pot from its confines. How I managed to get the thing over to the stove is beyond my remembrance.

Once more I covered the "hog" with water by filling my juice pitcher several times and pouring it into the pot. I added the prescribed quart of apple cider vinegar, turned on the burner and went into the living room to watch TV.

Within half an hour, the apartment was inundated with a hideous odor! Ewwww! I raced to open all the windows. I was sure that the odor would dissipate, after all, that was one of the reasons to boil it, right? I wrapped up in a blanket and went back to watching TV.

The first knock came shortly.

Mrs. McInnes stood at my door: 73 years old, feisty, a lace-edged hankie over her nose. "Do you mind telling me what in heaven's name you're cooking down here?" I attempted to explain my predicament, but she was neither amused nor the least bit understanding. She headed back up the stairs in as much of a huff as one might expect from a 73-year-old woman. But she was only the first.

They came in a steady stream for the next two hours. Every last one of my neighbors in the apartment building came down to inquire as to what I was cooking that smelled so horrible! The odor of cooked ground hog filled the halls, permeated three stories of the complex and hung in a cloud-like stench around the outside of the building! Needless to say, they all pretty much reacted in exactly the same way as Mrs. McInnes!

As the end of the third hour approached, I bailed some of the odiferous fluid off the "hog" and struggled with the pot back to the counter. I promptly dumped the mess down the drain, leaving this rather strange-looking thing lying ominously in the sink. I proceeded to step two, mixing the herbs and marinade, hoping with all my heart that this part of the process would negate the smell of the first part. I managed to lift the "hog" into the roasting pan, doused it with the herb mix, and put it in the oven. I then went in the bathroom and bleached my hands, as the hand soap had not removed the odor acquired in the handling of the "hog" itself. It never occurred to me that things might get worse.

I went back into the living room and resumed watching TV. An hour later, the phone calls began. Once again the neighbors were complaining, and begging me to stop what I was doing. I explained that it only had an hour or so left to cook so it would all be over soon. They were still not amused. Mrs. McInnes threatened to call the police. I suppose she intended to have me arrested for endangering the public nostrils!

When the timer finally buzzed, indicating completion, I gave a hearty "Thank goodness!" and leaped up to take the critter out of the oven. I opened the roaster lid. There it sat; the bizarre delicacy. It was dark brown, perfectly round and looked almost good enough to eat. It still smelled pretty gamey to me, but, I had followed the recipe exactly. I got on the phone and called Jim at his apartment across the parking lot.

"Dinner's ready," I said sweetly.

"Great! I'll be right over," he replied.

The knock on the door seemed a bit hesitant. I opened it and found Jim standing there looking as though he had swallowed something extremely foul!

"What's that awful smell?"

"That's your dinner!" piped up Mrs. Delaney from across the hall.
"And I hope you choke on it." She slammed her door.

I rushed Jim inside and closed the door. I had visions of an apartment riot and things didn't seem to be improving. Jim held back a bit as I brought the offering to the table.

"Well, it looks good," he said.

I handed him the big carving knife and fork. He stood up and tried to carve, but the fork bounced off the roasted ground hog ball. No matter how he poked and prodded he could not get the sharpened fork tines to pierce the rubbery thing. Finally he put the fork down and tried to hold it with his hand while attempting to carve, but the knife found no more purchase than did the fork!

"You ruined it!" he said.

"I did no such thing. I followed the recipe exactly!" I replied.

I grabbed the recipe pamphlet off the counter and began to read. "Oh, I see what the problem is."

"Yeah, you ruined it," he repeated.

"No, I followed the recipe as written, all except for the most important part. It says use a tender young ground hog and you brought me a geriatric case! Did you actually shoot this thing? Or did it drop dead from a heart attack when the bullet whizzed over its head?"

Jim sat there sulking and hungry. I picked up the "hog" and tossed it in the sink. I rinsed the goop off of it as best I could and tried to pat it dry with paper towels to prevent dripping.

"There is only one place for this," I said.

It slipped from my hands, hit the counter, and bounced about an inch. Jim snarled a bit as I laughed and bounced it again, a bit harder this time.

"It's a basketball!" I said as I headed for the incinerator room.

The "hog" felt rubbery in my hands. I had to try it. I reached the incinerator room with its concrete floor. I gently dropped the hog. It bounced up almost to my knees! Pretty neat. So I bounced it down again, this time hard.

Bits of "hog" flew everywhere as it exploded on impact. I scrambled around corralling the horrible, smelly parts and shoving them in the incinerator as fast as I could, a process that was greatly inhibited because I was howling with laughter as I imagined the entire east side of Cleveland reeking of roasted ground hog! After tossing the last of it into the burner, I went back to my apartment, bleached my hands, put all my pans and utensils to soak in bleach and informed Jim that we were going shopping.

We found a convenient market that was still open and bought massive numbers of air fresheners, which we apologetically dispersed to the other apartment dwellers in the building. They were hardly mollified by the gesture, but at least they tolerated me for the duration of my time there.

That night, we ended up eating at McDonald's. I forgave Jim, and married him anyway. I moved out of the apartment very soon after the wedding (the neighbors seemed quite happy to see me go, if you can imagine that).

Needless to say, the great white hunter pretty much retired from the profession, and, although he still shoots targets (he's actually gotten better at hitting them, too), he never brought home another "fresh-killed offering" for dinner (one of the main reasons we're still married).

I'm still amazed at the stupid things a woman in love will do (ground hog indeed!). My advice to any woman, in love with her very own Great White Hunter, is to always remember that both you and the groundhog are much better off if Punxsutawney Phil remains a fur-ball predicting spring and doesn't become a rubbery basket-ball type of thing!