Ramping up for NaNoWriMo 2011

30 10 2011

Astute readers of my last post will have read, close to the bottom, a word that they probably have never seen or heard before: NaNoWriMo.

Don’t worry about it, 10 days ago I had never heard of this word either. But that was before I went to a writers’ conference, where each of the 800 participants was talking about it like it was some kind of holy grail.

Nano what? Nanotechnology? No, that’s something different. Nanoseconds? Uh-uh.

NaNoWriMo is “National Novel Writing Month,” also known as “November”. The movement was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area (where most of the world’s great, innovative and ground-breaking things tend to be founded) 12 years ago as a challenge to get people to sit down and write. Just write. Not edit, or research, or read, or rewrite, but WRITE.

Yup, I'm in!

The goal is to put 50,000 words down on paper (or a computer screen) during the 30 days of the month. For those who are wondering, that is a tall order, even for folks who do this kind of thing all the time. Sure I can bang out a blog post of 400-600 words in maybe an hour or so.  But NaNoWriMo will demand a much higher level of proliferation (folks also sometimes call this “verbal diarrhea” or “literary vomit”) and most of all, discipline.

50,000 words means a daily tally of 1,667 words, for 30 days straight. That is more than three blog posts. Every day.

That is like running a marathon each day for a month. I would be pretty sick and tired of running after that, I think. Of course, my hips and knees will have called a strike halfway through.

I’m sure by the end of November, I will be sick and tired of words, and my computer screen, and my keyboard, and that damn voice in my head, and that devil sitting on my shoulder. Am hoping my fingers, wrists and nerves survive to see the end of it too.

But the good thing about NaNoWriMo is exactly that – the deadlines, the pressure, and not wanting to give up because nobody wants to be a quitter.

The organizers have a great website with motivational strategies to fight the beast that will beset each and every one of us sooner or later…. the beast called: “There-Are-A-Million-Other-Things-I-Must-Do-Right-This-Very-Second-That-Just-Can’t-Wait”. Organized write-ins will up the peer pressure and make sure participants are not just staring at a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen for three hours a day.

The Zurich write-ins are at a local Starbucks. I see my caffeine intake peaking.

By virtue of the fact that I am telling you about this means I am making a silent and solemn pledge that I will finish the project to the best of my ability. And I’m basically unemployed now, so hey, I have the time. Maybe I could cheat and include blog posts in the 50,000 word total. In the end, I think any sort of writing is accepted by the kind folks in Berkeley. They are a tolerant people.

So for the next 48 hours I will go away and mentally prepare myself for my month of marathons. I have no idea yet what I will write, or about whom. In any case, at the end of it, I will be 50,000 words and one fascinating life experience richer. What I do with all that remains to be seen.





Whale-watching – sans whales.

20 10 2011

After suffering a professional assault too complicated and sordid to describe here (I will, one day, when I have fully digested it, and spent all the money they threw at me to keep quiet), R. and I decided to get outta Dodge.

Actually our trip to the Left Coast had been planned for a while (like, a week). We felt like we needed some California fresh air before the next dark Swiss winter puts us in a deep-freeze. The fact that my unexpected and untimely departure from my high-power, high-paying, high-profile and high-risk-of-falling-into-disfavor job just happened be on the day before our flight was to depart from ZRH to SFO was, well, a coincidence.

A hint of San Francisco is enough to make anyone positively sick with longing. A few days of wandering the streets and tasting the freedom and you have to pry me from the Golden Gate Bridge, finger by finger.

Paradise, no? Close?

But the highlight of this trip was to be whale-watching in Monterey Bay, about 2 hours south of the City. Monterey is on many peoples’ bucket lists, and migrating whales seem to like the place too. It’s apparently one of just a few locations along the coast where some species of the sea mammal can be seen any time of the year. So we booked ourselves into a 120-year-old bed-and-breakfast and decided to go whale watching.

The day we arrived in town, a brilliant blue sky greeted us. Hundreds of sea lions, comfortably lounging on buoys, breakwaters and the shoreline, barked their welcome. Seagulls the size of turkeys populated the piers and coveted our dinner. Towards the southeast, a wall of fog seemed far too far away to do any damage.

The next morning, we could barely see 50 feet (30 meters) and the temperature had dropped a good 30 degrees F (16 degrees C).

But the intrepid will not be hindered by a little fog and a lot of cold, especially not here in California. (Right?)

40 bucks a head and we boarded the Princess Monterey, headed for the open sea. The outing started promising enough, with dolphins emerging from the grey-in-grey ocean just barely after we left the harbor… The pre-game show had begun. More dolphins, with a couple of sea lions in the mix for good measure. Awww… look at them play… aren’t they cute?

A dolphin, not a shark. (Or a whale.)

Okay, great. ‘Nuf dolphins. Where are the stars? The reason we all came out here in the first place! The giants of the ocean! The magical creatures of the deep! The largest mammals on earth!

Nowhere to be seen. It was like they all got together and decided Tuesday was their day off.

They are unionized, after all.

Three hours later, 40 tourists aboard the Princess Monterey chugged back into harbor – disappointed, freezing and seasick. R. resented having been captive aboard a vessel with a bunch of strangers whose behavior and noise level he could not control. Including the woman whose slobbering, sniffing and severely shedding hound the size of a pony pulled her around the boat. Repeatedly.

(Why would you take a dog whale-watching?)

So much for connecting with nature and learning about sea-life. Sayonara 80 dollars.

When we got back to our car, an acutely observant meter maid provided the perfect end to a miserable day. 35 more dollars for an expired parking meter (by 16 minutes).

Okay, I’ve had enough. Time to go back to San Francisco.





Lanugage Traps for Foreigners

31 05 2011

Language and culture can be tricky, and there are a lot of unhealthy traps that a foreigner can tumble into without even trying. The Swiss friends with whom we are currently traveling in the United States have gotten a massive dose of both in the past couple of weeks.

Heading off into uncharted linguistic territory.

They have been pretty good sports about it all, even if, as is sometimes the case, the joke happens to be on them. And even if most of the information goes in one ear and out the other because it will be useless to them when they get home in 6 days.

In my previous post, I mentioned my role as the color commentator as we pass landmarks, cruise through national parks and drive down Main Streets of small towns along our way. And some of the stuff we have been talking about really does merit a blog post.

Cultural connotations can be difficult to understand in the language of origin, and most are more or less gibberish in some other language that doesn’t have the words for it. Here is a short list of a few things I have recently tried to explain… I have listed them in the order of least difficult to most difficult to describe in a foreign language.

See how many of these you can do in a language that is not your own, and let me know your foreign friends’ comprehension and/or reactions:

  • Why are there little red flags on the sides of American mailboxes?
  • 100 miles does not equal 100 kilometers, and 100 degrees Centigrade does not equal 100 degrees Fahrenheit (but that 100 degrees F is still hot enough….)
  • The difference between “hash browns” and “hash brownies”.
  • How drivers at an intersection with a four-way stop sign organize themselves so that chaos does not ensue in the middle of said intersection.
  • What are trailer parks, and how do you identify their human declination, “trailer park trash”?
  • The micro- and macro- economic benefits of 24-hour shopping. (And the fun of a 3 a.m. soccer game in Aisle 6 of your local supermarket using a can of tuna instead of a ball.)
  • Why it’s completely appropriate to dance with some guy to live music in some stinky bar in some little town in the middle of nowhere out west and then later ask to borrow his cowboy hat for a photo opportunity. (Prerequisite: alcohol.)

And here is one I haven’t even attempted on my Swiss friends yet, but know from past experience with other Germanic peoples that it’s pretty much impossible:

  • Major League Baseball.

    Does not exist in Europe.





Keys to a great Roadtrip

14 05 2011

As R. and I prepare for our next legendary roadtrip through the western USA, I have been thinking about the couple of things that turn a good roadtrip into a great roadtrip.

Last time we were underway, in September 2010, we covered more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers). We did a loop in the northwest, starting in San Francisco and going all the way out to Yellowstone National Park and back, with a bunch of stops in between. If we would have driven straight, we would have covered the ground between San Francisco and Boston. A cross-country trip in a circle, so to speak.

This time we are keeping south, with visits to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Death Valley, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park and much, much more. Thanks to R.’s meticulous organziation skills, we have hotel reservations in every scheduled overnight stop, and our route has been planned down to the timing of our pit stops.

A favorite place of mine: Bryce Canyon.

So here are my personal top five ingredients for a great roadtrip:

1) A decent car, preferably something large like a van or an SUV – It is a gas-guzzler (20 mpg on a good day) but the driving comfort and sitting high up above the street is really priceless. And I can handle the bad conscience of driving one of these behemoths of the road when I’m on vacation because at home I am very conscious of my carbon footprint and I drive a smart.

2) The Rand McNally Road Atlas – SO much to see and learn on every page. Just following one’s progress on the map reveals so much about the country, its treasures and of course its size. There is a lot of beautiful ground to cover out there.

3) Satellite Radio – This is the absolute truth: Nowhere in the world are the radio stations as good as they are in the United States. In every city and every region you will find radio for every taste, political persuasion and mood. But the absolute key to great entertainment underway is satellite radio. Top three Sirius XM stations in my book: “70’s on 7”, “80’s on 8”, “The Bridge” on channel 32 and “Margaritaville” on channel 24.

4) Spectacular scenery – Of course, no roadtrip is worth going on if there is nothing to see. And, like the radio stations, no country offers more geographical and scenic variety (and beauty) than this great land of ours. Trust me on this one. (And then take another look at that photo above.)

5) Compatible roadtrip partner(s) – So that the quibbles about the temperature inside the car, the music and whether or not you are on the correct road or making a seven-hour detour won’t turn into World War 3. The last thing you want is for a roadtrip to turn into mutual road rage, especially when you have a whole bunch of miles to go together.





Surprises on the road

17 09 2010

We just got back from another epic journey in the American west. Jetlag has attacked with a vengeance (I am having more and more trouble with him as I get older, it seems), and I am up at all sorts of ungodly hours, writing. But I have to say that we had a grand time – as expected. It was also a learning experience, my second such educational tour in the western part of my own country. There is so much to discover out there and I am sure I haven’t learned nearly all I want to know.

So I decided to compile a list of things I didn’t know before I went, as well as vignettes and facts that surprised me during the 12 days we traveled through northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. Maybe you were ignorant of these as well (but probably not).

If only I could put all my cool experiences in a box and take them with me everywhere, to open and enjoy whenever I want to.

Here is my list of interesting & fun stuff (in no particular order):

  • There is a lot of desert in Oregon.
  • There is a sign at the side of the road whenever you cross into a new time zone.
  • Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park blows every 93 minutes, like clockwork. Almost.
  • San Franciscans have thoroughly embraced the Smart car.
  • Bison can swim?

"Yes we can!"

  • Buffalo wings have nothing to do with these buffalo because they come from Buffalo, New York.
  • The LDS-church temple in downtown Salt Lake City (from which non-LDS-believers are banned) is pretty small. And downright insignificant when you compare it to many European cathedrals built 600 (or more) years ago.
  • A Jeep Grand Cherokee is also called a “Laredo.”
  • New quarters will be minted with motifs of the national parks, in the order in which they were established. Yellowstone (founded in 1872) is the first to be commemorated on the back of a quarter – and I have one.
  • Coast Redwoods can get to be 2,400 years old.
  • While looking for change in my wallet at a Starbucks in Bend, Oregon, the Barista told me, “Sorry, we don’t take Euros.”
  • There is actually a place called “Jackpot” in Nevada.
  • There are many onions in Idaho.
  • Sarah Palin was born in Idaho.
  • West Yellowstone, Montana is the self-declared “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
  • It takes eight hours to drive from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nevada (520 miles / 800 km), across a whole lot of nothing.
  • If you come to live in San Francisco, you will never leave. As a friend put it so aptly: “How can you be miserable in such a beautiful place?”

She's right, you know.





Wacky American Stuff, Part I

8 09 2010

Having lived overseas for such a long time sometimes I am astounded at all the stuff my own country has to offer that I didn’t know about before. Stuff that’s not in any guidebooks that I have read recently. Or maybe it’s just because I am an over-sophisticated eastern seaboard Yankee that I find some of the things I see out here in the West a bit off the wall.

Near Leggett, CA, for example, is an international natural landmark that I had not yet heard of till we actually drove past it and decided at the spur of the moment to go there. It is “The World-Famous Drive-Through Tree”, a coast redwood tree, 315 feet (95 meters) tall with a diameter of 21 feet (6 meters). It is called the “Chandelier Tree” because of the shape of its branches.

Redwoods are unbelievably hardy plants, and grow to be among the biggest and longest-living beings on earth. They can reach about 400 feet (120 meters) in height and can live for more than 2,000 years. They are massive, gracious trees and endless forests of these unbelievably majestic and beautiful individuals stretch across hundreds of miles along the Pacific coast.

Lots and lots of very big trees.

And if you don’t know what a drive-through tree is, well, you are not alone.

The gateway to the “world-famous drive-through tree” (according to the website redwoods.info one of only three drive-through trees in all of the United States) is a small driveway leading off highway 101. An old guy with a baseball cap sits in a small hut in the woods and charges five dollars per car ($3 per motorcycle) for the privilege of driving another quarter mile on a dirt road through the forest, and standing in a single-lane, one-way traffic jam.

In typical U.S. fashion, visitors to the “world-famous drive-though tree” traffic jam sit inside their air-conditioned SUVs, trucks and minivans with their engines running on idle while sipping Coke from 36 oz (1 liter) paper cups. After a few curves, the “world-famous drive-through tree” finally comes into view: a giant redwood with a tunnel big enough for a car carved into its base. This is the attraction of the day – a huge hole in the base of a huge tree! Amazing.

(And… I’m just curious… what do the eco-friendly among us think about this?)

R. wonders aloud whether or not the other drivers will be surprised that there’s no one taking their fast-food order through a speaker and they don’t get it delivered to their window when they pass out the other side.

I'll have a happy meal, please.

We do the (ethically and environmentally questionable) tourist-trap thing and drive our Jeep Grand Cherokee through the hole, and then we get our five bucks’ worth of photos and video, too. We’re hoping the money goes into some sort of fund to protect the redwoods, but at the same time we are realistic enough to recognize a good American capitalist when we see one.

The old guy smiles and waves to us from his hut as we leave.