Monday, April 30, 2012

Tryouts



I took both of these with the new macro lens. Not great, but an improvement over the basic lens system with which the manufacturer equips the camera. As I learn how to use it, I'm sure I'll be able to capture some decent photos with the new lens.


 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Long Haul

Mysteries.

Often when I'm doing a question and answer session I get some questions I cannot answer. Well, I can answer them, but the answer is one of ignorance.

"Why do you write?"

I don't know.

"Why do you write horror?"

I don't know.

Seriously, I just don't know. I always fear investigating too deeply into why I write and why I write the kinds of things that I do. Because I enjoy writing and I've always felt that if I analyze it too much it'll lose its appeal. Basically, the magic might go away. So I don't think about it too much.

I just write.

When you're self-taught at writing, as I am, you make a lot of mistakes. I do have a tiny bit of an education, but it's a poor one as far as official schooling goes. I attended the public school system in my native state of Georgia. Even at the time I was attending public school in that state I knew that the quality of education that I was receiving was absolutely awful. If not for the fact that my parents owned a bookstore and I had access to hundreds of thousands of books; and that my parents were both avid readers and independent thinkers, I shudder to think how I might have ended up. If you're poor and live in Georgia, you're going to get a really shitty education at the hands of the school system there.

Yesterday, going through some boxes, my wife found a small stack of short stories that I had written about the time we first go married. That was when I had gotten very serious about pursuing a freelance writing career and I was trying to teach myself how to write short stories. I'd written these things on a typewriter. Back then, I didn't even have a basic word processor, so it was all typewritten and then off to the local print store to make copies. Of the stack of stories that she found, I could only recall having written one of them. Until I glanced at the others, they had been completely forgotten.

And for a valid reason. They were flat freaking awful. Just terrible. I think they would have made even an HP Lovecraft fan gag.


 Writing is one of the few professions of which I know where the practitioner doesn't know jack-shit about what he's doing when he begins. At least in most other jobs you go through a guided apprenticeship and have a while to learn before you take the reins of your chosen occupation. Not so with freelance writers. With those fellows you mainly have introverted sorts who have secretly enormous egos who think that what they're doing is great. Even if it's not worth--in the words of my dad--a good goddamn.

It took me a couple of years of writing before I was even passably good at it. I'm amazed that I was able to start selling short stories so soon after trying my hand at it. For a while I was selling a lot of them and they were going in quick order as I typed them out. I sold to magazines, anthologies, and comic books. These days that's a lot harder to do, since most fiction markets are floundering or already dead. These days the young writers trying to learn their craft are no longer submitting work to the kinds of magazines and anthologies who bought my early professional-caliber stories. These days, people self-publish the kind of crap that should never see the light of day.

Looking at those early stories are a good lesson in and of themselves. Today, I realize how awful they are. I don't even see anything in them to mine for new material. Yeah, they're that bad. But what I do like about them is that it showed that I was trying like Hell to learn how to be a writer. It shows that I had energy and the kind of tenacity it takes to make a legitimate go of it in the writing game.

In the long run--looking at those awful yarns--I learned how to do it right. I learned how to create a work of fiction that's worth a good goddamn.

Speaking about Writing.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Space Crap

A lot of my friends keep whining about the death of the Space Shuttle. As if it was some kind of wonderful, crowning glory of human space flight. In fact, though, it was a horrible project. It was one of the most dangerous vehicles ever pushed through to completion and into mission status. The damned things were flawed at a basic level and inexcusably dangerous to fly. Everyone knew that, and yet the project was rammed through. And what can you expect from a project that was initially chaired by Spiro T. Agnew? I'm amazed that they found teams of pilots and engineers to fly on the missions. Think about it: 40% of the vehicles failed in flight, killing all passengers aboard. Would YOU get into a vehicle if 40% of them failed, killing all aboard? No effing way!

The Space Shuttle: Good freaking riddance.


Columbia.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Self-Publishing

Some of my recent tweets:

"Step 1: Self-publish your shitty novel. Step 2: Get your family & butt buddies to write five-star reviews. Step 3: Kill yourself. Please."

"Your self-published crap is free???!!! Oh! That makes your crap SO much more attractive! A pile of shit that's free for the taking! Thanks!"
 
"Oh. Your crappy piece of self-published shit is free. That makes me SO much more inclined to download it. Really, though... Stop it."

And it goes on like this. But seriously, people: Stop self-publishing all of those shitty books. You're not professional writers. You're morons. You're too stupid to see how you're embarrassing yourselves, but please stop it--you're making the rest of us nauseous.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Joey Ramone Action Figure!


My Joey Ramone action figure. I'm thinking of selling it with a bunch of other toys and such.
 



Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Macro!

I have always been frustrated by the results of trying to take macro shots with my latest SLR digital camera. They never come out the way I want them to, and are rarely usable at all for my blogs.


However, I didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars for a higher end macro lens. Not until I'd tried some other lenses to see what kinds of results I could get. So I ordered a very inexpensive macro lens on Ebay. This one hails from Hong Kong and cost a rich $13, with shipping included. I had to wait four weeks for delivery, but if it helps me take good macro shots I'll be happy.


If I can find the time, I want to run up to the hills and find some good wildflower spots to see what I can accomplish with this new lens. We'll see!

My new macro lens at last!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Black Mountain Panoramas


As I've mentioned here many times, one of my all-time favorite spots in the southeastern USA is the Black Mountains of North Carolina. We really do have some genuine high country here in the South, and these are the very highest of our peaks. Hike up there and you are in a very different kind of place than you find yourself in most of the region. Everything about them is different. Since the climate on these high peaks is similar to that of southern Canada, you will find a completely different experience from what you are accustomed.


Since the weather is like that of a thousand miles north, then the vegetation is also going to be unique. Firs make up the bulk of the forest along the spine of the Blacks, which is how they got their name. From a distance these gigantic summits look black from the dense forests of dark green balsam and spruce trees. Through the late 1960s and into the 1980s these fantastic forests were leveled by the twin effects of acid rain and the invasive pest known as the balsam wooly adelgid. These were similar to the monstrous plague that are currently destroying our hemlock forests. In the case of the balsam adlegid, though, they swept through the forests and pretty much killed them down to the last old tree. Since they can only invade older trees with seamed bark, the saplings that came up behind them were spared. Are these bugs gone, now? Did they eat themselves into oblivion? So far, the balsam forests have recovered and seem quite healthy. But the adelgid could return, and the energy companies are always screaming to be allowed to pollute the air. So stay tuned.


From the high ridge that rises up from the Montreat area, there are a number of bare summits that afford wonderful grandstands of the Black Mountains. I was fortunate enough to be able to create some good panoramas from my visit there last week.


Enjoy.


Some of the major peaks of the Blacks. This was created from shots taken on Pinnacle. This is the highest ridge line in the eastern USA. It doesn't get any higher than this in the south (or the entire east, for that matter).

I stitched this one from photos taken on Graybeard Mountain, just beyond Rocky Knob.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Waiting for Macro

While I've been waiting for my macro lens to arrive from China I went out to try once more to see if I could take anything close to a decent macro shot with my new camera. For some reason I have not been able to take any such shots of quality since I bought this camera. It's a good camera, of course, but I just never have figured out how to get decent close-up shots with it.


So yesterday I went out in my mother-in-law's back yard and tried a few new options with the lens and settings. This time I came close to getting the desired effect. But I'm still very much looking forward to receiving the macro lens that I ordered. When it comes I'm hoping that I'll finally be able to get some truly first-class images with it.


What is strange to me is that some of my older, cheaper digital cameras (also by Canon) gave me much better macro shots than this pricier machine. I suspect it's because I had more time to practice with them, but it could just be that their more limited lenses were better attuned to macro photography than the lens one gets with the new Canon Rebel models.

Flower in the rain.

Another of the flowers. These are about the only color left in the yard now that the azaleas have faded.

I love watching the backyard hemlocks produce new needles every Spring. Especially now that the eastern hemlock is all but extinct in our high country here in the Carolinas.


For such a big tree, Tsuga canadensis produces really tiny cones.



One of the two 42-year-old hemlocks in the yard.

The other hemlock on the far side of the hard seems to embrace this big pine.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE BEATS, A Graphic History

I hate to publish a less than positive review of work by any writer or artist I generally admire. However, I am so glad that THE BEATS will not go down as Harvey Pekar's last work, because it really was uninspired and not very good.


When I first heard about this book, it was described to me as a volume that looked upon the writers and artists who are known today as "the Beats" in a less than positive light, showing what lowlifes they truly were. If that had been the case, then the book would likely have been a better read.


All of the fans of the Beats (and I include myself among them) first look upon that lot as adventurous sorts out to prove themselves as rebels and to live outrageous and courageous lives. However, the more I read of them, and the more of their work that I read, it became obvious to me that they were--by and large--a bunch of creeps. Frankly, I would not have wished to have spent any time in the company of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, or the rest of the bunch.


They were--for want of a better term--scum of the Earth. They were not only devious in their dealings with society at large, they were deviants in almost every way one can imagine. They swilled too much alcohol, took too many illegal drugs; they stole money, food, cars--anything they needed. Some of them were murderers, or were comfortable being in the company of murderers--basically they didn't seem to care. A disturbing number of them were rapists and child molesters.


THE BEATS, quite the disappointing biography.
If a book had been written specifically listing these facts and rubbing the collective noses of their fans in this hard evidence, then the book might have been a success.


Alas, it did not really do these things, and the final product was rather bland. Instead of creating a work of insight and courage, Pekar and company ended up leaving us with what amounts to a boring drone of a book. It doesn't help that the artwork--mainly by Ed Piskor--is similarly uninspired. Piskor's graphics were pretty much as boring as the text, which is a shame. So much could have been done with the subject matter if only the contributors had been able to peel themselves away from the worship and awe with which so many of us use when regarding the Beats.


In point of fact, the Beats were a nigh-worthless lot of lucky criminals and assholes. That they found fame and success and were later to stand with the highest of the high is strange and wonderful in many ways, and stunning in so many others. I wish that had been the book Pekar and his collaborators had produced. If so, it would have been fun to read instead of merely boring.


The only section of the book that does break out of the mold set by Pekar was the piece focusing on "the Beat Chicks" by Joyce Brabner. She did in that one small section what I wish all involved had done when offered this chance to shine a new and more vicious light on that circle of crazy friends.

As I said, I'm very happy that this was not Pekar's last word. Amazon.com just sent me an email that HARVEY PEKAR'S CLEVELAND has shipped. In a day or so I'll have his newest graphic novel, one dealing with his lifelong city of residence and from which I have read excerpts. It stands to be a real gem of a book, and a fitting addition to the Pekar bookshelf.



Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Truth

I haven't posted anything political or philosophical in quite some time. So here's something by someone very clever and very concerned:

Truth About Tech
Created by: MastersDegree.net

And I've pointed out the work of Annie Leonard before, but here's my favorite video of hers once again:

Friday, April 20, 2012

CPCC's Sensoria Appearance

On Monday, after my backpacking trip, I had to get up earlier than I really wanted to so that I could be on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College for their annual Sensoria event. I'd been invited to speak, along with AJ Mayhew, as alumni who have sold novels to major publishers. The folk who organized the event were very good at their work and made me feel welcome and comfortable. I had a great time, and I hope the audience did, also.

This was the biggest room in which I've spoken so far. When I first started doing signing and author talks I was always really nervous. Not Charles Bukowski puke-in-a-bucket nervous, but pretty nervous. Now they don't bother me at all.
And here I was, in front of the almost totally female crowd speaking about monsters and zombies. Most of the audience had obviously come to hear Ms. Mayhew, but I think I did a passable job of keeping their attention.

After our talks, it was time to sign autographs.
I always get a kick out of meeting new readers.
I listen to the very entertaining AJ Mayhew



Our books on sale at the makeshift CPCC bookstore annex.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hell of a Grandstand!

For years and years and years. And years. And maybe some more years, I have visited the Black Mountains here in North Carolina and thought about climbing the nearby summit known simply as "The Pinnacle" to get a view of the East's loftiest peaks. One could tell just by looking at The Pinnacle that it would be a really good place to view the Black Mountains. And it wasn't just the logic of its placement--I'd also heard and read that the view on the summit was one of the best around.

But every time I was in that area I always had other hiking goals in mind. And whenever I'd plan a hike to The Pinnacle, something would always seem to get in the way and I'd have to put it off for another day.

However, because of the fact that Andy, Bob J. and I had gotten lost in the Mackey Mountain Roadless Area, we ended up deciding to hike the ridge that serves as home to this peak. So, finally, almost by accident, I was going to climb The Pinnacle.

Some people call this mountain Blue Ridge Pinnacle, which I actually prefer, even though it is not listed as such on any map. This is because the people of my native south so often showed no imagination whatsoever when it came to naming the peaks around them. I don't even want to know how many mountains here in the south are called "The Pinnacle". There have to be scores of them, if not more than a hundred. So I wish that it really was called Blue Ridge Pinnacle. We should make it so.

The hike to the top of this mountain is very darned easy. You have only to park along the Blue Ridge Parkway near the gated Mount Mitchell Toll Road. And then begin hiking the unofficial trial that skirts the border of the Asheville Watershed (making certain not to trespass onto the Watershed--they're serious about it and will arrest you if they catch you doing that) and then follow that trail along the ridgeline to the summit of The Pinnacle.

The hike is very pleasant, through classic high elevation northern forest types. In short order, and after what seems a very brief climb, you will emerge from the forest onto the exposed rocky summit of The Pinnacle. Be careful here because you will likely be gawking so much at the views that you might fall down.

Well, it took me a very long time to make it this summit, but I'm very happy that I finally got there. I highly recommend a visit. But not too many visits--I hate crowds and I want to go back to find a little solitude and natural beauty.


This is actually in Mount Mitchell State Park. This is part of the slope leading up to Clingman's Peak. We stopped there to use the rest room facilities before beginning our hike.

Posted sign warning you to stay off of the Asheville Watershed. They mean it. They are very serious about this.

Andy took this of me and the doggies. That's Boone in front of me and Kona bringing up the rear.

I love the way the southern trails pass through vegetation tunnels.

And, at last, the rocky summit of The Pinnacle. Here I could look across the saddle toward Graybeard Mountain.

Click to embiggen. One of the best grandstands to view the Black Mountains. Here, I've labeled some of the notable peaks visible from the top of The Pinnacle.

Me, on top of the highest point.

From left to right: Bob Johnson, Andy Kunkle, Me.

Andy, Boone, Bob, and Bob. I don't know where Kona was. Wandering about, I reckon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

High Peaks around Graybeard

I'm going to skip the first part of the hike on the second day of our trip. Mainly because the first section was hiking to the summit of a mountain I've been talking about bagging for years, but never had until Sunday. More on that one later.

From the summit of that first peak we could see the rest of the day's itinerary. We would be hiking and bushwhacking along the spine of a very high series of peaks that lead up from the towns of Montreat and Black Mountain. They stand as a very high string of mountains going up toward the Black Mountains, the highest peaks in the eastern United States. A couple of years ago I had hike a small section of that area, much closer in to Montreat with Jack Thyen. But on Sunday I was ready to bag a few more, including the highest of the bunch.

The view of the route we were going to hike. And the mountains we would summit along the way.

As we left the first summit we headed down into a saddle toward a peak locally known as Rocky Knobs. They're pretty high and would be considered major peaks here in the East if it were not for the fact that they're surrounded by North Carolina's highest country. Placed in just about any other eastern state and these mountains would be the highest--indeed, they'd dwarf the mountains in places like Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, Alabama, Georgia, etc.

At Rocky Knob we found the views to be outstanding. We could see a truly new and impressive profile of the Blacks and all of the other ranges strung out around us. The next summit on the trail loomed beyond: Graybeard Mountain.

By the time we hit Rocky Knob and sat around taking photos and talking, Bob Johnson had decided that he'd had enough of bushwhacking for the day and figured he'd head back toward the vehicle and wait for us. He had been to the top of Graybeard a number of times and didn't feel like wasting the effort for one more hike to the top. So we left Bob on the peak and we headed down. And I do mean DOWN. The other side of Rocky Knob drops precipitously down to the saddle we needed to access to find our way to Graybeard. But Andy picked out the route and we descended safely, stopping once to help Kona, the youngest of the two dogs.

I had been a little worried about the bushwhack between Rocky Knobs and Graybeard, but it turned out to be rather an easy go. The trees were all mature and spaced far apart, so I didn't have to deal with branches tearing at my pack as I had the day before on Mackey Mountain. The rough trail negotiates along the border of the Asheville Watershed. Most mountain towns jealously guard their watersheds, and Asheville is typical in this respect. Trespass on the wrong side and get caught, and you'll spend a night in jail. Believe it.

After the easy walk and a short but steep climb, we came out on the top of Graybeard Mountain. There are some good views there, and we stopped briefly to view the Graybeard Shelter built and maintained by the Montreat Hiking Club. It's rather a nice shelter, and I was impressed with it.

After that we strolled over to Walker Knob, which is a sub-peak of Graybeard Mountain. The views there are good, too, but look down on development in the form of houses, man-made lakes, roads, businesses, etc. and so the experience is not as nice as what we'd already seen.

The hike back toward Andy's SUV was all on the Mount Mitchell Toll Road. This road was first built as a narrow gauge railway for the removal of the virgin timber that clothed these mountains. Constructed in the late 1800s, it's an amazing testament to the engineering capabilities of the men of that era. After the timber was all cut out the rails were removed and the roadbed was altered as a highway, mainly for access to the high peaks of the Black Mountains and, specifically, for Mount Mitchell. In the later 1800s and early 1900s there was a lodge on the summit of Mitchell, and tourists used the road to access the peak.

Today the road is rugged, but in exceptional condition. I hope it remains in its current state, as it's a great way to get to mountains like Graybeard and Rocky Knobs.

Andy Kunkle took this photo of me on Rocky Knobs. The high peak (with towers) directly behind me in Clingman's Peak, one of the highest in the East.

Andy (with Boone) scouts the route we would take down the side of the peak to the saddle separating us from Graybeard Mountain.

Andy carefully picks his way down the steep slope.

I begin the descent down the route that Andy had picked out for us.

Careful...

I took this one looking back up toward the top of Rocky Knobs.

We found this gnarly old tree in the saddle. The orange sign on the huge limb is to mark the border of the Asheville Watershed and to warn trespassers away.

From Graybeard Mountain looking back toward Rocky Knobs and The Pinnacle.

Andy at the Graybeard Mountain Trail Shelter. He has stayed here a number of times. It's pretty nice as such structures go.

This baffle was built to keep hikers from taking the wrong trail. The easy way is down the peak and to the Mount Mitchell Toll Road. If you go through the fence baffle, you are on the Seven Sisters Trail which is longer and much more rugged. Apparently a lot of people were not paying attention and getting lost on the more difficult trail.

An old dead snag on Walker Knob, a sub-peak of Graybeard Mountain.

A typical view along the Mount Mitchell Toll Road.

And looking back toward The Pinnacle as we get nearer the Blue Ridge Parkway and Andy's SUV.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How We Screwed Up

We started out our Mackey Mountain hike with good intentions. We knew that at least part of the hike would be on an established trail (the aptly named Mackey Mountain Trail), but that at some point we were going to have to rely on route-finding skills to find some older abandoned trails that would take us down to Mackey Creek. The original plan was for a loop hike of about 14 to 15 miles. Doing half each day, it would make for a relatively easy backpack.

However, the Forest Service has obviously not maintained the Mackey Mountain Trail. After some miles we lost sight of it, the old trail just vanishing. We're pretty sure now that we veered away from it below a summit that we mistook for Mackey Mountain. Thus we ended up far off course and somewhere above Lake Tahoma instead of down in the coves where Mackey Creek is located.

After that, we figured if we backtracked that we would find the old path and get within a mile or so of our original campsite destination before it began to get dark. However, we missed the faint turnoff where we had first lost sight of the trail and after some backtracking in reverse, we just realized that we'd utterly screwed up. By that time we knew that the only thing to do was to head back to the trail head and our vehicle (Andy's SUV). There is no water source along the ridge we had used to hike in, and all of us were running out of water. There was nothing to do but cancel our original backpacking plans and find a National Forest campsite and pitch our tents.

The hike along the ridge leading toward Mackey Mountain was relatively scenic, with a few steep climbs and a couple of impressive overlooks. The forest along the ridges is dry and dominated by hardwoods. I wish we'd been able to find the old Mackey Mountain trail and our way to Mackey Creek. But that can wait for another time.

As it was, we found a decent campsite a mile or so off the Blue Ridge Parkway part of the way down a road that leads to the Black Mountain Campground. We pitched our tents, cooked our meals, drank some wine, and settled in for a night's rest. I, for one, was exhausted and slept through the night, waking only a couple of times, very briefly, only to fall immediately back to sleep.

At the trail head, getting ready to start in on the long trek to Mackey Creek.

Bob Johnson, Andy Kunkle, and Andy's new puppy Kona.

Bob at one of the nicer overlooks we found on the hike in.

A stitched panorama where we dallied for quite a while.

A nice chunk of the Mackey Mountain Roadless Area. It should be part of a new wilderness area, but of course there are always political and corporate pressures to prevent new wilderness and to destroy what has already been established.

Some kind of notice carved into a tree. I assume this was for the purpose of someone doing surveying of this area.

A strangely shaped tree we encountered along the hike. Andy called it the Unicorn tree, but of course I called it the Parasaurolophus tree.


I took this one of myself in my one-man tent just as I got ready to go comatose after a grueling 12 miles of slogging along a steep ridge for no good purpose.