The Flames of Prague Book Trailer

I had a really productive Sunday! I made myself cross two things off my to-do list. One, I finished putting The Bloodsuckers on Wattpad (so now Wattpad has all the episodes that my blog has). Two, I finished my trailer for The Flames of Prague!

Like the credits for Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, I made the trailer for Acceptance at the last minute and at great expense. (Actually, it didn’t cost me anything, but I did make it in less than 24 hours using a program I had never used before.)

Book trailers work best, though, when you make them up a little in advance of your publication, instead of 24 hours before. I’ve been working on The Flames of Prague trailer for a while, but neglected it for several months when I lost access to a computer that had Vista (which has a much better version of Windows Media Player than older Windows versions). But, my husband happened to acquire a laptop with Vista on it a few months ago, so I finally made myself sit down yesterday evening and finish it. And I have to say, I’m pleased.

My Plan for Leveling Up in 2017

As I mentioned last month, I prefer to think of getting older as “leveling up;” it just sounds better. Of course, you will level up every year regardless, but I think that you’ll feel better about it if you can look back and see that you’ve actually accomplished some things.

I’ve been putting some thought into what I want to accomplish, since I just leveled up myself. Here are my goals between now and next October:

Strength: I’m way out of shape. I’m also finding myself stiff after long car rides (even after just a 45 minute commute) and first thing in the morning. Let’s face it; that’s only going to get worse as I get older. I need to at least pay some lip service to exercise (especially as I’m one of those odd people who loses weight with even small amounts of exercise but gives it up very grudgingly–or not at all–with diet). My goal is to do one physical activity per day–be that taking the stairs at work, gardening on the weekends, cleaning house, etc.

Constitution (Endurance): What requires more endurance than unpacking, organizing, and cleaning? We moved into our house in January and we still have some things in boxes, and have only put up about half of our pictures and none of our curtains. (You can tell someone lives out in the boonies if they don’t put up curtains first thing.) My husband does a lot of the basic housekeeping, but I’m the organizer and decorator and the doer of the hard-to-reach stuff. So my goal is to spend 1-2 hours every week working on improving the house and garage. This means getting everything unpacked and put where it needs to go, getting the necessary furniture installed, decorating, and general organization. Once a room is established, then my main goal will be to tidy it up and give it a general cleaning.

Ideally, I will spend two hours in two zones each week; in a 5-weekend month, I would get the entire house done, so every room would get a tidy every month. In reality, I’ve already been working on this and it winds up being more like 1 hour a week (and that doesn’t count weekends when we go to reenactments). But I’ve gotten some boxes unpacked and two rooms are now completely box-free and the living room nearly is. So I won’t knock progress, even if it’s slow.

Dexterity: My husband and I had our first garden this summer (something we’ve been trying to get going for years!). Some parts of it were a bit sad (the eggplant that never did anything; the various plants the dog tore out–sometimes multiple times), but some weren’t bad (the cucumbers that took over our porch and our small harvest of tomatoes when no one else was getting any). What was most important is that we learned.

I’ve recently been studying up on permaculture (aka food forests, edible landscaping, plant guilds, edible forests, and probably half a dozen other names). I’ve already spent a lot of time this summer studying edible wild plants and identifying them in our yard, and permaculture sort of piggybacks on that.

Long story short, I want to start landscaping our yard with edible perennial (or self-seeding annual) plants. My goal for this year is to establish at least one “food island” (as I term it) in the yard. We will almost certainly have another straw bale garden for traditional annual vegetables, but I want to work towards a permanent installation that requires little maintenance on my part.

Intelligence: I’m going to publish Flames of Prague. (I actually received my proof a couple of weeks ago and the print book is good to go; I just need to do all the formatting for the ebook.)

Wisdom: A few years ago, I started to make myself a prayer book for use on my Kindle so that I could carry it with me and get in the habit of using it throughout the day. It’s still hanging out in my Dropbox, mostly completed. My goal is to finish it this year and get it on my Kindle. I also want to get in the habit of going to synagogue once a month. I used to go weekly, but I’ve just gotten lazy (and I let other things compete for my time). Once a month doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Charisma: I’ve been sick for the past couple of weeks, so I’ve let my daily Spanish study slip, but I’m going to get get back on that today. My goal for the year is to get all the way through the Duolingo Spanish tree.

So, there you have it: my leveling up goals for my 37th year. Some I need to work on daily, some weekly, some monthly, and some are a one-time project that I can do and be done. So a good mix of things to keep me busy, but hopefully not overwhelmed.

Even if your birthday isn’t any time soon, you can still take the leveling up challenge starting next year (and if you want to get a head-start, I won’t tell anyone!). Be thinking about what things you want to accomplish in 2017 and greet your next birthday knowing that you may be a year older, but you’re also a year wiser, stronger, and more well-rounded. Level Up!

Almost Done . . .

final-cover-v3-for-ebookI finally got off my ass and uploaded The Flames of Prague and its cover to CreateSpace. Now I have to wait for their review. If they don’t see any obvious issues (like page numbering or margin issues–both of which I had to wrestle with before I submitted it), then I can order a proof copy.

Fingers crossed that the proof copy will look good. I’ve already had one that was almost perfect, so there wasn’t a lot of tweaking that was needed. If it looks good, the paper copy will go on sale immediately. Meanwhile, I’m going to start the process of stripping all the formatting out to turn it into an ebook.

I hope to have all formats published by next month.

Chasing Nonconformity: A Review

I recently discovered that Michelle Proulx had released the sequel to her first self-published novel, Imminent Danger and How to Fly Straight into It. (It released last year. I confess that not only have I been neglecting my own blog, but I’ve been neglecting fellow writers’ blogs as well.) It just so happens that I re-read Imminent Danger last week, so it was the perfect time to download Chasing Nonconformity and spend my Sunday reading it (instead of cleaning the kitchen).

What you need to know: Young adult science fiction romance series. Firefly-esque. Intended audience: Teen girls up to nerdy adult women. (I.e. Fan girls of all ages.)

First off, I love the title. Titles are surprisingly hard to come up with sometimes. I had the first draft of Acceptance pretty well written before I came up with the title. And I finally decided on the title of the second book just last week (Between Two Worlds). So I appreciate a good title. And “Chasing Nonconformity” can do double duty as the name of a documentary about goth kids, which amuses me.

51yxpaaxbtl0I also have to brag on Michelle’s covers, which are great science fiction covers. I liked the original Imminent Danger cover just fine, but the new cover—and the matching sequel cover—just look super professional. And that’s good, because her books are very professionally done.

There is still a lot of stigma attached to self-published authors; I’ve even heard other self-published authors admitting that they don’t read much self-published stuff. Given some of the crap I’ve seen professional published lately—complete with bad proofreading/typos—people shouldn’t automatically dismiss self-published material.

If you’ve been reluctant to read self-published material, then I recommend you try Michelle’s books because they’re very clean; you will never know that you’re reading something self-published.

I have noticed that a lot of times sequels are sloppy compared to the first book or two. My theory is that an author sweats and labors over their first book for years, and maybe even has part or all of the second written before they finally get their first book published. Then publishers want the subsequent books on schedule. It used to be that there was a year between books, but now it’s about 6 months, on average. Yes, you can technically churn out a book in 6 months, but you can’t do that most crucial step, which is stick it in a drawer for a few months and forget about it. Then you take it out again and start editing. This allows you to look at your book with fresh eyes—more like a reader will see it—and it allows you to say, “You know, that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I see that it doesn’t work.”

When you’re cranking out a book ever 6 months, you don’t have mellowing time and it shows. (The third installment of The Hunger Games, in my opinion, suffered from “rush to the presses” syndrome, as did the final Twilight book.) The nice thing about being a self-published author is that you can take your time to turn out good material. (If you’re not writing for money—and, at this point, most of us are not—then you should at least turn out something that makes you proud, even if it never makes you rich.) Michelle’s sequel doesn’t disappoint on that account; it is very well-crafted and I didn’t find myself questioning her choices.

Michelle really does science fiction well. I am not a physicist, but I’ve had enough science classes (thank you Philosophy of Star Trek 101) to have a basic grounding in the principles. And so far, I haven’t noticed that she gets anything wrong when it comes to inertia in zero-gravity environments, sound in space, etc. But, even better, she’s really good at inventing aliens and alien worlds and describing them in Technicolor. It’s amazingly hard to invent something out of whole cloth. Mouthless aliens that speak by blinking out musical sounds? Fabulous! And my favorite is Miguri’s mood-hair. You can always tell how he’s feeling based on his hair. Agitated, it spikes up; depressed, it droops.

Michells also does a really great job of having a wide variety of characters and keeping them true to character. Her inept peaceniks are always inept in laughable, loveable ways. Characters with odd or unique speech patterns maintain them throughout. She’s also really good at keeping some characters’ status of good or bad questionable. Varrin was a great anti-hero in the first book because we never knew when he would sell everyone for medical experiments; he, more than the plot, was the source of the suspense. In the second book, Fino’jin becomes the questionable one. In the first book, I liked him like you would like a Klingon, but in the second book, he seems less honor-driven and more revenge-driven. His real moral status is still questionable.

Although only a few days separate the first book from the second book, there is a notable shift in Eris’s character; she seems much more mature. I think this is not because she’s supposed to have grown so much, but rather because Michelle herself has changed over the time it’s taken her to write the sequel. I have noticed this in my own writing, especially when I’m writing characters who are similar to me or are actually based on me. As you personally learn and change, it’s hard (maybe even impossible) to keep your characters from reflecting that. The drawback is that it makes it feel like more time has passed between books than was supposed to have happened. (The best way around it that I’ve found is to move the sequel out just a little bit in time and do a flashback if necessary to fill in the gap. I think that hides some of the change by making it feel like a bigger amount of time has passed.)

But, despite that, I really like the person Eris has become. In the first book, her only weapons were her sarcasm/wit and optimism. Those can both be helpful in a tough situation, but they’re not a substitute for having a good blaster at your side. Which is why Eris spends so much time in the first book getting passed around like a bottle of cheap hooch at a frat party.

Not so in the second book. Maybe Varrin’s started to rub off on her, or maybe losing her gun virginity by killing someone at the end of the first book did it, but in the second book Erin is much more in control. She still has people trying to abduct her—and in some cases she bumbles right into it—but she’s stopped passively accepting her abduction and she fights back. It’s like we get to watch her transformation into a space pirate—a moral space pirate, but a space pirate nonetheless.

The only complaint I really have is that it seemed short. I’m not one of those people who reads a few books a week, but I did read all of this in one day. Of course, it’s a testament to its ability to captivate that I wanted to read it all in one sitting, but I would have rather it have been too long for me to have possibly done that. But, at the same time, I really can’t point to any part of the book and say, “There should have been more about X in there” or “this needed to be expanded and explained better.”

I suppose the only place to have made it longer would have been at the end. The end is satisfying enough, but I think it would have been a bit better if it would have ended with 1) a newly assembled crew and 2) a destination for the next adventure–just like the first book did. I mean, we more or less know who the new crew is, but I would have liked to have seen it assembled and everyone in agreement on what they’re doing/where they’re going next. There was no cliffhanger for the main characters, which left it feeling like it was already wrapped up. There was a set up for the third book in the Epilogue, but it only featured a secondary character. I would have like to have seen a setup for the next book with the main characters, then introduce the secondary character as the villain who is going to thwart their newly-laid plans.

But, that’s actually a fairly minor quibble; like I said, the ending wasn’t bad, it just could have been tied up into a bit neater of a bow. I’m still eager to read the third book. All I can say is it better involve a showdown on Rakor, preferably with Eris poised to be a virgin sacrifice to the sun god. Or maybe with her as a knocked-up sacrifice to the sun god. Imagine the shame to the Emperor if his next heir was half-human.

So, five stars. Get a copy. Read it. Badger Michelle for the next one. It’s been a year already!


Medieval Monday: SCA 50 Year

Back in June, my husband and I went to a week-long event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the SCA. I’ve been meaning to get the pictures off the camera for months, and I’ve finally done it. So enjoy!


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Our tent is a 14′ x 14′ center-pole canvas marquee with a 7′ x 14′ porch from Panther Primitives. Normally we put the walls up pretty early in the set up process, but it was pretty hot, so we left the walls off while we worked to get some air.

The first thing that goes down is our tarps. We have one dedicated floor tarp that’s pretty heavy, but when we’re camping out for a week, I’ll take the cheap tarp that we use to cover the back of the truck and put that under the heavier tarp. We have twice had water run under our (cheap) tarp and seep up through the middle of the floor and it was pretty miserable because there was no way to dry out the inside of the tent and few places where you could stand to get dressed without getting your feet wet. That was what prompted us to quit being cheap and buy a heavier-duty tarp. But I’m still paranoid, so if I have a spare tarp, I’ll double-up. (Especially as they were calling for heavy weather in the middle of the week.)

On top of the tarp go our rugs. Because of course you have to have wall-to-wall carpeting. Those are thrift store, flea market, and yard sale fines. If we see a good deal on a rug, we’ll buy it because if we don’t need it now, we will in the future. The rugs can take being wet if we hang them up when we get home, but we have had problems in the past with mice in our barn and a few of the rugs are rough around the edges where they have built nests in them.

My husband made our bed. It’s full size. The headboard and footboard are exactly alike, so it doesn’t matter which you use. There are two identical side rails that fit through slots on the headboard and footboard and pin into place. There are narrow rails on the inside of the side rails and we put wooden slats on top of these. Then the mattress (a real mattress, not an air mattress!) goes on top of the slats.

The bed is tall enough that a standard-sized plastic tote can fit under it and be hidden by the bedskirt. We pack most of our clothes, housewares, and foot in plastic totes and some of those things live in the totes under the bed. The nice thing about the plastic totes is that they are relatively waterproof. This is an important consideration when they’re in the back of a truck, but it’s can be just as important inside the tent. This past Gulf Wars, we had what is now known “affectionately” as “Gulfnado.” Some people claim to have seen rotation above part of the campground. But others say that there were only two supercells that combined and hit us. Regardless of whether it was a tornado trying to form on top of us or only straight-line winds, everyone is in agreement that winds were coming in gusts of up to 60 mph and hit in opposite directions. Tents and sunshades went down all over the site and many people’s things got wet. After we lost our big communal tent (where everyone in camp was just sitting down to dinner), I rode out the rest of the storm in this marquee. (It and our wall tent were the only ones in our camp to survive unscathed and dry.) While I was in there, I hurriedly packed as much of our stuff as possible into the plastic totes to keep it dry in case we lost the tent.

A lot of times I will cover our cooler with a spare blanket just so it’s not so obvious (and we’ll know where the blanket is if it suddenly turns cold; the weather is vary variable in Mississippi in March). I could probably make some sort of curtain to cover up the shelves of food, but I haven’t bothered yet. We’re the only ones in our tent, so we look for a balance between a medieval feel and convenience. (We also have to balance how much crap we (read: I) have to pack and set-up).

I bought the shelves from my Laurel; she and her sister designed them. They’re cotton strapping that’s been sewed into loops and they have grommets at the top that allow them to slip over the pin on our interior poles. There are a couple of small straps on both of them that you use to tie them to the poles. Then you slip the boards into the straps and level them. They self-level pretty well and they move with the poles. Despite those 60 mph winds, I don’t think anything fell off our shelves.

My husband blacksmithed the clothes rack. The metal brackets screw into the poles (although we’ve talked about him redesigning them so that they have holes in the top that allow them to slip over the pins like our shelves do) and we put a pole across it. There’s also a board that sits on top, but isn’t self-leveling and it’s so close to the top that the wind can snap the top and knock stuff off of it. So we only put hats on top; they won’t be hurt if they fall off.

We also have some blacksmithed hooks that hang off our pole pins; they’re scattered around the tent. We use them for hanging up wet towels, a mirror, umbrellas–whatever we need.

Normally the table (which is under the porch in this set up) is in one corner of the tent and I used it as a dressing table. I keep a mirror and my hairbox on it. When we go to Gulf Wars, we have a huge communal tent that we use as a kitchen and dining room for all the people in our camp. But at this event, we were on our own, which meant we had to do our own cooking. So the dressing table became a washing up and prep table and my husband’s bedside table became a propane stove table.

We also normally don’t use our porch (it’s so much nicer to sit in the big tent and be social). In fact, this was only the second time we’ve set it up. It needs some modification because it’s just too low to stand under. We need to add a center pole to lift it up and give ourselves some more headroom. But it was so hot at that event, it was nice to have it to sit under while we ate dinner; it was cooler than trying to sit inside or having to sit in the sun.

Around Site

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I didn’t get any pictures of the rest of the camping area, but my husband snapped a few pictures of the main thoroughfare on his camera. (This being Indiana, everything was very flat, so it’s not like there was a place to go to take a picture that would give you some sense of the scale of the event.)

The Great Machine

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The greatest display at the event was the Great Machine. It is meant to be a scaled-down model of a medieval blacksmith shop that runs on water power. (There’s a great episode in Connections 1 that covers medieval water-powered machines.) Of course a moving exhibit can’t run on water power, so the owner has modified the design to run on dog power. (In a medieval shop, the wheel would have been on the outside of the building, just like a mill. But the principal and mechanics are all the same.)

The dogs turn the big wheel and it spins a wheel in a gear assembly. But it’s not until a foot pedal or hand lever is used that the gear assembly fully engages and the power of the wheel is transferred to either the hammer or the bellows. (This means the big wheel can spin continuously–as it would if it was water powered–but the equipment isn’t constantly in motion.)

The hammer is on a somewhat egg-shaped gear that has a notch cut in it. As the gear turns, it causes the hammer to rise until it hits the notch and it drops. There are some bowed pieces of wood above the hammer–like a car’s leaf springs turned upside down–that work like a spring. The hammer is pulled up against them, then when the notch drops it, they force it down even harder.

Sutton Hoo Burial

Another great display was the Sutton Hoo burial.

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Duke Talymar has spent years (and God only knows how much money) replicating the grave goods from the Sutton Hoo burial. He has made some of the items himself, some (like the pots and buckets) he was able to pick up at flea markets, antique stores, and online auctions. A lot of the stuff he has commissioned artists in the SCA to make for him.

The attention to detail is fabulous. He really has a museum-quality display. Everything that he’s had made is either exactly the same scale of the surviving pieces or it’s within millimeters of being the same size. He just happens to be about the same size as the king for whom all this stuff was made, so he is able to wear all of it.

I studied the Sutton Hoo burial in 8th grade, but either I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, or it wasn’t this detailed. The original red and blue rug hanging up on the wall was imported from very far away, and many of the other grave goods came from far away, both attesting to the wealth of the man who owned them and the trade routes that existed at the time. Trade obviously didn’t stop just because the Roman Empire had ceased to exist.

In a few cases, Duke Talymar had to cut corners. The jeweled pieces in his display are red enamel whereas the original pieces contained rubies. But where he could, he used gold or silver that was electroplated with gold.

He had a mannequin in his display, but it’s not known if there was ever an actual body in the burial. It may be that the body was cremated near the grave.

Block Printing and Stenciling Class

There were two classes at the event that I didn’t get to take (they were full), but I was able to get pictures from them. One was how to use stencils to paint designs on clothing and the other was how to do block printing. (Block printing is period; stencils do a perfectly fine job of replicating block printing, but are a bit easier to do.) The instructor had a lot of her own examples on display.

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Many people in the class were using stencils they bought (I noticed just the other day that Hobby Lobby had some medieval-looking ones), but the instructor also showed people how to make their own stencils using plastic sheets, like you use on an overhead projector. (I believe you can also get stencil plastic, which would be a bit sturdier and last longer.)

For the wood block printing, a few people brought their own (I got one at the Nashville flea market, but you can find them online at places like eBay; they still do a lot of block printing of textiles in India), but most people made their own. They just cut their desired shapes from thin craft foam and glued it onto a scrap of 2×4. Boom, instant “rubber” stamp.

In both cases they painted with undiluted latex house paint. The teacher absolutely swore by it; she said it never came out. Some of her dresses on display were more than a decade old, had been worn and machine-washed many times, and had not been retouched. Of course, the drawback to that is if you make a mistake, you probably aren’t going to be able to get it out, so make sure you have some paint on hand that matches the color of your fabric; you may have to paint over a mistake.

50 Year Display

There was a display in one of the big halls that showed the evolution of the SCA. Each kingdom had a booth in which they displayed the history and best artistic achievements of their kingdom. If you proceeded around the hall counter-clockwise, you moved through the kingdoms as they formed, with the oldest first and the newest last. There was also a large embroidery done Bayeux Tapestry style that documented some of the more notable events in the history of the SCA. And there was a display showing the evolution of armor. Several booths had recorded music from their best musicians, video interviews with residents or people recounting the formation of their kingdom, or archival footage of old events and fighter practices.

There was no way to get a picture of everything, but I managed to get pictures of the most impressive displays.

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Cooking Demo

My husband got to hang out with some of the folks doing open-fire cooking and they swapped info and compared equipment.

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I am going to try to make it a point to take more pictures when we go to events to document what we do. The SCA is not public, like a Renaissance Faire; we do not perform for other people or for money. Even other non-profit historical reenactment organizations tend to be a bit more public than us–after all, it’s kind of hard to hide a few thousand Civil War reenactors shooting at one another. We’re a bit more in the shadows, despite being a very large organization. And a lot of people are dismissive of what we do as “playing dress up.” But a lot of good research on the middle ages has either been done by reenactors or has been driven by reenactors.

For example, what we know about armor has grown by leaps and bounds because reenactors put on replica armor and started to use it as it was intended. That was when it was discovered that museums had put straps in the wrong place or pieces were upside down. (Surviving medieval armor tends to be found sans the leather and canvas that held it together–it’s just a pile of metal pieces–so it can be hard to figure out what went where.) Also, reenactors snap up any sort of research on the middle ages; there are people who have gotten their PhD’s published simply because there’s an actual market for their research on 14th century clothing in English or wooden boxes of the Norsemen or whatever other obscure thing you can think of. You wouldn’t believe the ecstasy everyone was in over the finding of 15th century underwear a few years ago. People were on it with high power cameras and rulers like ducks on June bugs. Then everyone ran off and started to experiment with fit and then started to publish material.

So I will try to share more pictures in the future to raise awareness (if you will) about what reenactors do. I can talk from personal experience about the SCA and, to a much lesser extent, Rev War/18th century reenacting, but there historical reenactors from all different eras. You can reenact the WWII Invasion of Europe, or attend a Jane Austin-themed Regency ball. The two things everyone has in common is 1) we love history and 2) we want to be a part of it.

Leveling Up in Real Life


In case you need this, it’s a T-shirt! Click pic for link.

Someone posted on Facebook recently that we shouldn’t call a birthday “another year older” but rather call it “leveling up.” “Reaching level 50” sounds much better than “turning 50 years old.”

America is still a relatively young nation and is obsessed with youth. Youth is seen as innovative and dynamic, whereas older people are stuck in the past and inflexible. But in other cultures, age is revered. Like wine, you are supposed to get better with age.

It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

It seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

And, if we really think about it, most of us will acknowledge this as true. When we look back at things we did as teens or twenty-somethings, we cringe. If we could go back in time, we’d go back with all our knowledge and make better life decisions. That’s because back then we may have been healthy and good-looking and full of energy, but we were dumb as a box of rocks because we didn’t have any real life experience. Mistakes, tragedies, and the occasional triumph have taught us a lot since then.

What if instead of lamenting getting another year older (I have a birthday coming up, so this has been on my mind!) we really do look at it as leveling up, like in video game?


Ask me about the time a co-worker’s 50th birthday cake caught on fire during an office party . . .

Of course, birthdays come around regardless. You might have accomplished nothing–maybe you’re even worse off than the year before–but you still add another candle to the cake. But no one wants to be the same old person they were the previous year; no one wants to get to the end of their life and see, when they look back, that they haven’t improved themselves at all since leaving school.

So, what can you do to make sure that when the next birthday rolls around, you’re better than you were the year before? How about borrowing a page from D&D and other RPG games and work on gaining “experience” in the following categories:



This is a good category for fitness. Everyone either wants to get a little more physically fit or wants to maintain their current fitness level. I doubt there’s anyone who says, “No, really, I’m happiest when I wheeze walking across the parking lot.” Figure out what you most want to accomplish (make sure it’s realistic!) and make it a point to train to reach that new level.

For instance, if you are really out of shape and overweight, your goal may be as simple as “walk up the stairs without wheezing.” If you practice it regularly, you will soon find that you can do it (and probably more besides). Then, when your birthday rolls around, you can look back and say, “A year ago, I couldn’t even do stairs. Now, I can walk up and down them without a problem.” Or maybe you’re recovering from an accident or surgery and your goal is to regain flexibility. Or maybe some part doesn’t work well (or at all) and your goal is to do physical therapy or strength training so you can be more independent.

Remember . . .


Sometimes life hits us hard and wounds us–to the point that we “lose” some of our experience points. Maybe you were an Ironman athlete, then an accident crippled you and you can no longer do it. Maybe you had a successful business, but a divorce and an economic downturn left you bankrupt.

If you think about life as one big quest, you have to realize that sometimes you are going to fight some huge monster or get stuck in some trap and lose. And it will hurt. But you always have the ability to build back up from where you are right now. Instead of giving up the game, salvage the situation and try to regain your lost ground.

Constitution (aka Endurance)


This is where I would put things that take a lot of willpower, but not necessarily a lot of physical ability. For instance, dieting/healthy eating. Having a kid and successfully getting it through another year of life (despite its seemingly repeated attempts to kill itself or you) is endurance. Keeping a clean house or decluttering both require endurance, as does getting (and staying) organized. Even making it a point to be on time when you normally run late is a level up in the constitution category. And don’t forget novel writing!

  • Chore Wars – Have your housemates (or even co-workers) compete against one another to gain experience points and gold or treasures (which you can allow them to cash in on real-life rewards) by doing chores (or anything else that you dread doing).
  • Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui – Still my favorite book for clutter-clearing and organizing motivation.
  • Scott H. Young – He’s all about focus, willpower, and leveling up. Be inspired!



This is a category for things that require work with your hands or creativity. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano or pick back up an instrument that you played long ago. Or maybe you’ve been meaning to spend more time on your carpentry or painting. Or it can be something a little more simple: you want to redecorate or even remodel your house this year. Or you can take cooking classes, pick up knitting, etc. Learning to dance also requires dexterity.


This is all about knowledge. If you’re in school, you are automatically leveling up in this category, but then you graduate and it’s like it’s the end of the game.


Except it’s not. You spend 18-22 years learning how to be a functional adult, but after that you still have 50+ years to live! Don’t let your mind atrophy! Studies have shown that working puzzles and learning languages and other things that exercise the mind lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s as important to give your brain a workout as it is your body.

If you wish you were more up-to-date on what’s happening in the world, make it a point to read newspapers or the online news. If you think your career would be aided by learning a programming language, find some courses online and work on it. Or go back to school for your degree (or another one or a more advanced one). Make it a point to read more or listen to books on tape so you at least have something to talk about at a dinner party. Enter competitions like spelling bees, geography quizzes, or maybe even tryout for Jeopardy! Even if you don’t win the competition, the study and practice you have to do just to compete is a win for you personally.

Lynda – This is a subscription service for video classes, but if you are committed to learning a lot in a short period of time, you can almost certainly get your money’s worth out of it. We have a subscription at work and I have used it to learn new software products and have even taken a few classes on work organization, leadership, and public speaking. Someone I worked with used it to learn better photography skills.

  • Coursera – Free classes by top colleges.
  • EdX – Same concept as Coursera.
  • LibriVox – Free audiobooks (Mostly older books that are out of copyright.)

Wisdom (aka Intuition)

In RPGs, this is where you track your ability to do magic, repel magic, or sense things like booby-traps or whether or not someone is lying. In real (Muggle) life, this is a category for all your inner stuff and spirituality.

If, for instance, you are in a bad relationship, make it your goal to get out of it! Or, if you look back and see that you have had a string of bad relationships because you keep winding up with the same kind of person over and over again, take the time to be introspective. Why do you keep falling for that kind of person? Does it stem from a childhood trauma? Is it because your self-esteem is low? Is it because you feel a need to save every wayward person? Work on getting your emotional/inner house in order.

indexAlternatively, if you are spiritual or religious, you may set yourself a goal of praying daily, keeping a thankfulness journal (or any other kind of journal where you work through your feelings and can analyze how you view yourself and others), going to religious services, etc.


This is all about interactions with other people. If you’re an introvert, this will be a challenging quest. But even introverts need human contact. If you are lonely and feel that you have few (if any) friends, make it a point to join some sort of social club, gaming night, etc. Or maybe you’ve been busy and need to put your friends on your calendar so you can stay connected. Or maybe you want to become a manager or leader, but you find yourself feeling a bit awkward around others or people have complained that you don’t handle work relationships well. Find some classes to help you be a better speaker, learn leadership skills, or even just learn the art of interviewing well and giving a good handshake.

mosaic7This category can also include things that really put you out in front of people, like modeling or acting, leading or volunteering in a social organization or charity, teaching, and even running for office or campaigning on someone’s behalf! And don’t forget learning languages; the more ways you have to communicate with others, the more you will be leveling up your charisma. Oh, and travel also requires charisma, since you are out of your normal element and have to interact with all sorts of new people in new circumstances.

  • Fluent in 3 Months – Intensive language learning. (This is what encouraged me to give learning languages another try.)
  • Duolingo – This is what I’m using to learn Spanish.
  • Memrise – A smart flashcard website that has a lot of languages, but they also cover other topics.
  • Toastmasters – Costs to join, but many people swear by it. Helps you with public speaking, selling, and social and business interactions.
  • Nomadic Matt – Advice on traveling cheaply and long-term.


Some things will overlap categories. While learning a language is mostly charisma (especially if you make it a point to speak to others in your target language), it’s also intelligence. Dancing is a lot of dexterity and creativity, but also strength. When things overlap, either put your goal into the category it most closely matches, or put extra effort into it and let it fulfill two categories at once.

Level Up!

63166726As I mentioned, I’m less than a month away from my birthday. And as I see (and feel) my youth slipping away, I find myself wondering what I’ve done and what I’m going to do. The last thing I want is for one year to be like the year before, and like the year before that, until I realize I’m just piddling around, wasting time, waiting for death to arrive. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, one thing everyone agrees on is that one you’re dead, you won’t improve. Heaven, hell, or non-existence: in any scenario, you only have what you came in with.

groundhog-day-drivingEven if you believe in reincarnation, you enter the next life with only the spiritual progress you’ve made in this one; if you make no strides at improvement, you will essentially just repeat your life over and over again. How boring!

So, if you have a birthday coming up (or just recently passed one), consider making yourself a “character sheet” and decide on what things you want to improve about yourself over the course of the next year. (Or just set goals for 2017 and allow yourself a little head start.)

Constitution (Endurance)

Wisdom (Intuition/Spirituality)

Don’t make the goals impossible. Losing 100 pounds in a year is probably not going to happen. If you’re really out of shape, running a marathon next year is also probably not going to happen. Set goals that you know you really could do if you just set your mind to it. For instance, I know I couldn’t be native-fluent in Spanish in a year, but I could certainly finish the Spanish tree on Duolingo in a year.

Remember when you’re setting your goals that you won’t really have a year to accomplish X because you have to also spend time on the other categories. (You don’t want to be a caveman with incredible strength and no intelligence. Or a know-it-all with absolutely no people skills. It’s okay to be better at somethings than other things, but to be a socially-acceptable and well-adjusted human being who is tolerated and not mocked by others, you have to work on everything at least a little bit.) Just like being in school and taking six classes, you are going to have to find a balance between your categories. Maybe you will try to work on a little bit on everything every day. (Some things, like exercise and journaling, certainly work better if you do them frequently.) Or maybe you will do one or two things at a time in big chunks of time. (Travel, performing a play, or completing a craft project are all things that tend to be a do-them-and-be-done challenge.) Whatever works best for you and your type of goals, spend at least a portion of your year working on each one.

And don’t be afraid to change your goal mid-stream. Like I said, life sometimes hits you and you find your goal is no longer attainable. (Or maybe you’ve just realized that you’ve set a goal that’s unrealistic or it’s really not something you wanted to pursue in the first place.) So just change goals. That’s always better than just giving up entirely and not even trying. At least then, when you get to the end of your year, you can look back and say, “Things were pretty bad, but I managed and I’m better off than I was when things were at their worst.”

file4991280736472Judaism teaches that life is like a spiral staircase: you appear to be going in a circle–seasons come and go and your birthday and holidays come around, pass, then come around again–but in reality you are moving up (or down!) a spiral. Every time a holiday comes around again, or you read the same passage in the Bible that you read last year, you’re supposed to see it in a different light because you are supposed to have changed over the last year. Of course, when you take stock of the past year, you will hopefully see that you have moved forward in a positive way! No one wants to go down the spiral.

I’m going to spend a little time thinking about what I want to accomplish and I’ll do a follow-up post once I’ve decided. Feel free to discuss your own goals in the comments.

Learning Languages – One Month Follow-Up

It’s been one month since I started learning Spanish and Hebrew online. So how has the project been going?

Well, the first thing I can say is that I stuck to it! There were some days when I didn’t get to it until late in the evening or after a hard day at work when I was brain-dead, so I chose to do review instead of learning new words, but I did make quite a bit of progress. In Spanish, I went from Level 6 to Level 8 (and like most games, each level requires exponentially more experience than previous levels) and increased my fluency from 20% to 40%. I also completed 10 modules and kept all of my completed modules up-to-date.

Hebrew got off to a rockier start as I felt that I just couldn’t keep up with it on Duolingo; I felt I needed a remedial course to give me vowels. (When I checked back with Duolingo partway through, I did notice that did better with their vowel-less words because I was starting to develop a rhythm with words and I did better at guessing which vowels should be there.) On Memrise, I completed about 4.5 modules and learned 116 words.



Look at all that golden goodness.

I can certainly say that I’m more interested learning languages than I used to be. Duolingo’s golden modules are especially addictive because you can see yourself making progress. And the fact that they occasionally lapse and you have to review them makes sure that you’re not stuffing new material into one side of your brain and having old stuff fall out the other side.

Another benefit to Duolingo over traditional classroom learning (note: I took 3 years of Spanish in high school) is that it doesn’t make a big deal about verb conjugations. Yes, you have to use the correct conjugation, but it’s presented in such a natural way that it seems easy to grasp it. When I was in school, we were forever drawing conjugation trees so we had to conjugate every verb we learned into all of its possible formations. When irregular verbs came along, there was a big deal about how the spelling changed and how careful you had to be to spell it correctly, etc. Duolingo just throws a verb down and that’s it. If a verb is in the “we” that’s all you need to know; there’s no mental recitation of all the other permutations. If it’s spelled one way, it’s spelled that way. There’s no elaborate explanation for why it’s spelled that way and not some other way.


I drew hundreds of these things. In fact, classmates started to borrow my notes because I conjugated everything.

It adheres to what I’ve said before: if you want to learn to be a good writer, read; you learn grammar most by example, rather than by instruction. You will get to the point that something “sounds right” even if you can’t quote the grammatical rule that makes it right. The same thing is true here with Duolingo: when you have a pronoun, you automatically choose the correct verb conjugation because it sounds right.

Memrise isn’t as slick and game-like as Duolingo, and you can only learn words, not grammar, but it does have the advantage of allowing you to create a mnemonic with pictures and/or words, and I found that to be very helpful in getting words to stick in my mind.


876e1b8c8f540c2382df9e56b3fd11fe809b8f9d63cd04e9e3b02d9b7c701a5aScott Young had a post last week about not having too many projects. For the curious and the intellectual, especially, I think there’s a desire to learn all the things! which leads to learning something for a few weeks or maybe even a few months, then switching to something else, then switching again, ad nauseam. You never master (or even come close to mastering) anything because you switch to a new project too quickly. Or you try to take on too many projects all at once, split your focus, and give up on all of them, again, before you’ve mastered any of them.

I once heard a rabbi say that people in a relationship go through two stages: infatuation and love. Infatuation is the rush you feel when you first fall for someone and your whole world revolves around them and everything is great and there’s so much chemistry and it’s just one big high.

Then the chemistry becomes a background noise that you don’t feel so much and you start seeing the flaws in your partner. He farts. She throws her wet towels on the floor. He never shuts the freaking cabinet doors. Her friends act like mean girls in high school, but she insists on inviting them over once a week.

In other words, the new wears off. You’re then left with two options, you can either dump this person because you see now that it will never work, you can dump this person just because you want the high again, or you can actually love the person—the real person, not the newness or the chemistry or the high.

I think projects work the same way: you get excited about doing them, then they start to get hard, then you stop either because they really weren’t the right project for you anyway, or because you’re looking for the high, not the commitment.

When I started, I really wanted to learn Hebrew because I have a religious incentive to do so. But I chose to continue learning Spanish because, well, I had already started it and I kind of hated to see it go to waste. (Also, I probably kept it up because it was easier than the Hebrew, so it allowed me to feel accomplished.)

But even though the project is just “learn languages,” learning two languages at a time is still splitting my focus. In the Spanish course,  I am starting to get beyond what I learned in school and I’m feeling the need to go back and pick up the Memrise companion course so that I can use the “mems” to help me remember some of the harder, less familiar words. In other words, if I’m to continue with the Spanish, I need to put more effort into it.

Up Next?

I think I have to accept that two languages is one too many right now. I will progress faster if I can concentrate all my effort on just one. Hebrew is harder and will take longer to learn, so as much as I want to learn it, I think I’m going to kick it to the curb for the time being. Even though I can make more use of it than I can the Spanish at the moment, I have progressed so much farther in Spanish, I don’t want to give it up.

So my next goal is to get all the way through the Spanish tree on Duolingo (using Memrise as needed to help me learn more difficult words). There are still 43 modules to go (including harder ones, like different tenses), so at my current rate, I’m looking at least 4 months to finish it—probably more like 6+.

After that, it should be a matter of maintaining the Spanish—either by reading in Spanish, watching movies in Spanish, or by conversing with another Spanish speaker—or probably all three. (I might even practice by translating some of my posts into Spanish, but I won’t have any immediate feedback as to correctness.)

Then we’ll see about picking up the Hebrew again. Or maybe something else. In 6 months, who knows what project I’ll be interested in?




Getting Serious about Languages

I was reading Scott H. Young’s blog post the other day about Ultralearning (which I just call my normal obsessive behavior) and I’ve decided to get serious about learning Spanish and Hebrew. That means daily practice of 15 minutes or more of each language. So far, I’ve been hitting one or both in the mornings for about half an hour. (I would have thought that my brain wouldn’t be awake enough to handle foreign languages first thing, but, surprisingly, I find myself looking forward to doing it and it actually feels good–like stretching gets the stiffness out and makes your body feel awake. Learning a little something first thing wakes my mind up.) And then, just because I’ve become rather addicted to it, I’ve been doing some at lunch and in the evenings as well.

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been using Duolingo for Spanish. And that’s been going just swimmingly. (Although, fair warning, conejos and cajones are not related words, even if they sound really similar. ChuckIt took me a minute to figure out why it looked like “my balls are eating carrots.” I mean, granted I don’t know much about the care and maintenance of testicles, but I was pretty sure they don’t eat carrots. Unless maybe they belong to Chuck Norris.)

Learning Hebrew has been a lot more of a struggle, though. I mean, about the only positive thing I can say about it is that it makes me feel like a Spanish genius by comparison. (Which is, admittedly, no small thing; I never cared much for Spanish in school because I felt that I wasn’t very good at it. It was right up there with math as something I could manage to do, but not without a lot of effort.)

Hebrew is traditionally (and modernly) written with almost no vowels (and the vowels that are shown could be consonants in disguise. You don’t know). And there are three basic scripts: traditional, modern, and handwriting. You can think of modern Hebrew script as printing and handwriting as cursive. Traditional script is more like calligraphy. The Torah is written in the traditional script without vowels, while prayer books and other things meant for non-native speakers are written in the traditional script with vowels. These are the letters I learned to read.

Duolingo, however, throws you right in with the modern script and no vowels. So I’m sitting there, looking at a word that consists of one silent letter and an M. How the hell are you supposed to pronounce __mm? Or is there a vowel associated with the silent letter? Maybe it’s really __mm.

Someone fluent in English is going to have little to no trouble reading a text message where most of the vowels are stripped out of it. (Dn’t blve me? Try ths sntnce out fr sze: th qck brwn fx jmpd ovr th lzy dg.) In fact, most people read some sort of bastardized English like that every day. But imagine that you’re Chinese and you are only vaguely familiar with Roman letters. Try learning English via those text messages.

My first attempt at Hebrew on Duolingo was agonizing; even when I completed a lesson, I felt like I really didn’t know anything. But somewhere along the way I heard about Memrise. Memrise also has language learning classes (among other things; they also have a lot of other classes), but whereas Duolingo is more like a language book which gives you whole sentences and makes you write what you hear, translate what you hear, and translate what’s written into and out of the language–i.e. you learn grammar and actually how to speak–Memrise is really just a fancy flashcard system that gives you words one at a time in either English or the target language and you pick the correct answer from multiple choices.

You may think that Memrise is inferior to Duolingo because words without context (i.e. grammar) or without learning to construct whole sentences (i.e. speaking) is a waste. But if you’re in a hurry to learn a language, you will probably prefer to learn as many new words as possible, rather than worrying about putting them in sentences with words you already are familiar with. (When I was in school, learning verb conjugation was of supreme importance, followed by using the gender-correct definite or indefinite article. But in reality you can generally make yourself known if you just know the words; being grammatically correct is nice, but not actually necessary to basic understanding. If a child or foreigner says, “Me wants water,” you know what they mean. Or “Yesterday I am going to movies.” Even though the tense is wrong and the definite article is missing, you still know what’s meant, especially in context–i.e. you asked the question “What did you do yesterday?”)

Memrise also allows you to make “mems” for your words to help you remember them better. (You can also uses mems created by others if you’re feeling short on creativity.) Adding a visual image to something you are trying to memorize is a classic memorization technique. (Look up memory or mind palaces.) tumblr_m4u7m5Fzpe1qjdni4o1_1280

Personally, I am still getting a lot of mileage out of Cartoon Hebrew which turns the letters into pictures that helps you remember what sound the letter makes; when you see that a particular letter looks like a tub, you don’t forget that it makes the “t” sound.


I’ve made a mem that associates the Hebrew word Chai with its meaning, alive.

Like Duolingo, Memrise uses spaced repetition to help you retain words. When you make no mistakes, words come up for review less often. The more mistakes you make, though, the more frequently you see the words in review.

The other benefit to Memrise is the one that applies to me: it’s simpler. Rather than trying to figure out several words at a time, I’m only presented with one at a time. And, even better that, Memrise has multiple courses–one of which specifically teaches Biblical Hebrew words in traditional script with vowels. That means I can actually read words without guessing what vowels they should have. And after a couple of days of working with just it, I feel that I’m walking away from it actually knowing some words–both knowing how to pronounce them and what they mean. The frustration level is down and the excitement level is back up.

And, oddly enough, after working with just Memrise for a few days, I went back to redo my Duolingo lessons and made it through them with the same rate of success that I expect from a Spanish course. Some of this may just be from practicing my letters so I’m more confident with what they sound like (even if I only get the see the consonants), but a lot of it is probably down to just practicing one word at a time and pairing the harder ones with mems so they stick in my mind better. This is easy to do because there is a Duolingo companion course at Memrise. I have found that I learn better if I start with the flashcards (and mems) on Memrise, then switch to Duolingo to tackle using them in sentences.

If you want personalized flashcards to help you learn, download Anki. Anki 1.0 was just a simple flashcard system that ran on spaced repetition. But it’s my understanding that the newest incarnation allows pictures and even sound, so you can make mems, attach pronunciation recordings, etc.