It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day! A Pirate Goes to School

at Harris
Ol’ Chumbucket with students at T.H. Harris Middle School. Note the logo on their shirts – look like anyone you know?

Well THAT was fun!

First, a happy International Talk Like a Pirate to ye!!! “That time in September when sea dogs remember that grownups still know how to play!”

You’ve got the buckles! It’s time to swash ’em!

This morning I got up earlier than usual, put on me pirate garb, and headed out with Tori (who was also in full pirate) to her school, T.H. Harris Middle School. I don’t know who this Harris fella was, but the school mascot and logo is a pirate. I was there to greet some rather surprised kids getting off buses. They were still fairly groggy and not happy about being awake. I’m not sure whether, from their point of view, having a pirate bellowing at them as the stumbled into school was a good thing or a bad. Pirates are not quiet. (“We go to eleven,” as Cap’n Slappy says) so we got their day started off with a bang!

As we greeted kids coming off the bus, the school’s uniformed police officer came by, curious. I assured him, “No pirates here. Just a couple of ethically challenged merchant seamen.” I think we fooled him.

Then the bell rang and they all headed to class. I headed to the office, where a couple of girls were starting the morning announcements. I let them do the pledge of allegiance, then I took over!

The first announcement was for anyone who wanted to sign up for the football team. They were to see Coach something or other in room 201, and pick up an insurance form. I added that if they wanted to sign up for pillaging on the Spanish Main, they could see me after school down at the docks. No insurance form needed.

The next announcement was a reminder that it was T.H. Harris night at Canes (a local purveyor of fried chicken strips.) A fundraiser for the school.

“Aye! We”ll gather at Canes and scuttle ’em, taking the booty to … wait … What? Really? They’re tellin’ me we’re just gonna go there and buy chicken and some of the proceeds will go to the school. Well, that’s good too.”

Couple more announcements, then I explained Talk Like a Pirate Day and gave them the Five As, so they’d know what was going on during the day.

And then it was time to head home, leavin’ the rapscallions, scallawags and nippers to the tender mercies of their teachers. But the day had been a little different, a little surreal for them, and that’s always good.

Oh, I should mention that I wasn’t wearing me cutlasses this morning. I felt almost naked! But the school has a very strict “no weapons” policy. Now, a pirate’s not afraid of anything! We’ll stare down storms at sea, revel in the shot and shell of battle, hurl ourselves over the side to board a Spanish galleon.

But even pirates don’t want to get detention!

(Thanks to Tori Baur (Mad Sally,) Principal Hubbard, and the faculty, staff and students of T.H. Harris.)

Saturday Science – Our Visit to LIGO

The LIGO control room. These monitors – and more to the left and right plus the banks of monitors at the work stations – keep track of what's going inside the massive detector.
The LIGO control room. These monitors – and more to the left and right plus the banks of monitors at the work stations – keep track of what’s going inside the massive detector.

Tori and I spent Saturday afternoon touring LIGO. Let me explain.

We had been watching a series of science documentaries recently, geeking out over black holes and the like. There was one about gravity waves, which had been predicted by Einstein but which had never been observed, tiny ripples in space-time spreading across the universe from massive, unseen events.

Unseen, that is, until September 2015, when a gravity wave from an event that occurred about 130 million years ago, was detected.

And then they said the words that got our attention. The observation had been made by the two LIGOs, which had been painstakingly designed and built for that specific purpose – one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana.

Quick check of the map – that was only an hour’s drive away! Quick check of the website – They have tours every third Saturday of the month!

The two LIGO tunnels – the second is visible in front of the tree line – converge on the main building, where a laser beam is split and sent shooting down both sides.
The two LIGO tunnels – the second is visible in front of the tree line – converge on the main building, where a laser beam is split and sent shooting down both sides.

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory. It is comprised of two long tunnels – each two and a half miles long – at right angles to each other. They form a big L. Inside is a long vacuum pipe, the most complete vacuum in the country. A laser beam is split, shoots down both pipes and is reflected back, where it is recombined. If nothing interferes, the two beams arrive at exactly the same time and cancel each other out.

 

One of LIGO's two tunnels – two and a half miles long – stretches into the distance.
One of LIGO’s two tunnels – two and a half miles long – stretches into the distance.

But Einstein had suggested that if a gravity wave happens by at the speed of light, it would cause one of the pipelines to contract ever so slightly and the other to expand by the same minute amount. The laser beam would be briefly misaligned, and that would register on the sensors.

The first gravity wave detected was caused by a pair of black holes colliding. Last week they detected a black hole swallowing a neutron star.

And not too long ago they hit the trifecta – detecting the collision of two neutron stars, an event that was also observed by gamma ray detectors and visual telescopes. In fact, LIGO detected the event first and immediately flooded the wires with a report of what they thought they had and where astronomers should point their instruments. And sure enough, there was a bright new object in that part of the sky.

The “control room” is filled with computer monitors, walls full of them and banks of them on the desks. And all of them are monitoring conditions inside the tunnels. They don’t show what’s being detected, because it happens so fast a human observer wouldn’t see anything. Instead the system records all the data and if an anomaly shows up it lets the humans know.

There are three such detectors in the world – the two LIGOs, 3,000 miles apart, run by a consortium led by Cal Tech, and a third, VIRGO, outside Pisa, Italy, run by a European science consortium. They share data and analysis and between them they act like the three legs of a GPS system, allowing scientists to determine where in the great vast universe the event took place.

What’s the point? I mean, seriously, what difference does it make? Decades went into designing and building the detectors – to what end? Well, it proves another part of Einstein’s theory, it helps us understand how the universe is built and how it works. Knowing things is better than not knowing them.

It also emphasizes how damn big the universe is. LIGO had been shut down for a while to tweak the system and improve its sensitivity. It is now detecting gravity waves coming from farther out than ever before, at a rate of almost one a day! There’s a lot going on out there. The universe is a big, violent place.

The Livingston facility also had a nice visitor center with plenty of hands-on science for kids, all of them hammering home lessons on light and sounds waves and kinetic energy. It was a fun afternoon of …

SCIENCE!

Prepare to be Boarded and Pass the Guacamole

Who discovered guacamole?

A pirate.

I’m tired of hearing that avocados are some sort of millennial food. That the hipsters somehow discovered avocados and invented eating it. So, rather than point to how long I’ve eaten avocados and the sort of things I eat them with, I’ll just say this.

The first English-language recipe for what could be considered “guacamole” was recorded by a pirate in 1679.

British-born William Dampier has been described as “a pirate of exquisite mind.” He became a pirate before he set off on a voyage of discovery that eventually made him the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times. And in his travels (he was the first European to explore Australia) his picked up a few things.

The following couple of paragraphs are from an article on Atlas Obscura. The whole thing is interesting except for the parts that kind of turn your stomach a little.

“Dampier began a life of piracy in 1679 in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. Orphaned in his late teens, Dampier set sail for the Caribbean and fell into a twentysomething job scramble. Seeing no future in logging or sugar plantations, he was sucked into the burgeoning realm of New World raiding, beginning what would be the first of his record-breaking three circumnavigations.

“In the Bay of Panama, Dampier wrote of a fruit ‘as big as a large lemon … [with] skin [like] black bark, and pretty smooth.’ Lacking distinct flavor, he wrote, the ripened fruit was “mixed with sugar and lime juice and beaten together [on] a plate.” This was likely the English language’s very first recipe for guacamole. Later, in the Philippines, Dampier noted of young mangoes that locals “cut them in two pieces and pickled them with salt and vinegar, in which they put some cloves of garlic.” This was the English language’s first recipe for mango chutney. His use of the terms “chopsticks,” “barbecue,” “cashew,” “kumquat,” “tortilla,” and “soy sauce” were also the first of their kind.

For my taste, Dampier’s recipe for guacamole sounds a bit bland. I like tomato, onion and peppers (salsa) in mine, along with the lemon, which keeps it from turning brown.

There are other notes in the story that aren’t quite so appetizing. He had a fondness for manatee, especially baby manatees that were still suckling. He also really liked a serving of flamingo tongues. And – no surprise – sea turtles.

But putting aside differences in dietary habits and what constitutes “food,” Dampier is a fascinating character. And he discovered guacamole for the European world, for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. And don’t say pirates never did anything that contributed to society.

Writing, Sharpening, and Preparing My Query

Three things accomplished.

1) Finished the second draft of the WIP. Beefed it up a little, added a couple of things the story needed and did so in a way that advances the plot a little quicker.

2) Performed one of the most pleasurable things an author can do. Wrote the first draft of the query letter, the letter where you’re trying to get an agent excited at the prospect of representing your book to publishers.

It’s a very specialized kind of writing, with a very specific audience. All you’re trying to do in it is get an agent to request you send the full manuscript. It’s gotta be short, sharp, and give enough of the story that the prospective agent will “get it,” and be interested enough to want to read it.

If you don’t know how to write a query or what “the rules” are, but have a manuscript you’re ready to pitch, I strongly recommend you visit the Query Shark, a service provided by literary agent Janet Reid. At query shark she evaluates queries and provides feedback for why one works or doesn’t. Just reading through the archives will prepare you to write your own.

Why should you follow some arbitrary set of rules? Because you’re trying to attract an agent, who will (with luck) sell your book to a publisher. You can’t ignore it when an agent says “this is what I want you to supply so I can decide whether I want to represent you.”

Why do you need an agent? I don’t have time for this discussion right now. Just suffice to say – YOU NEED AN AGENT. If you don’t think you do, good luck to you but you’ve reduced your likelihood of getting published from slim to virtually non-existent.

Oh, and this is very important, a legitimate agent will NEVER require payment up front. An agent gets paid when you get paid, as a small percentage of your royalty. Good agents are worth every penny of their commission. If they ask for money up front, they ARE NOT a legitimate agent. As seductive as it is to hear someone say, “I really like your book and think I’ll be able to sell it,” if they ask for money up front, they are not legitimate. Run, don’t walk, for the exit.

Moving on …

3) Began the less fun but equally important task of compiling a list of agents to whom I will submit my query. It’s not as easy as just compiling a list of every literary agency in New York (they’re almost all in New York, and there are hundreds of them.) You’ve got to go through each firm’s list of agents finding the one that represents what you’ve written – contemporary fiction, romance, adventure, middle school, young adult, whatever – and is currently looking for submissions. I’ve been at it all Saturday afternoon and have come up with ten so far.

With my last novel, “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” I eventually ended up sending out 82 queries. The one that ended up deciding to represent me was the 77th I sent out.

And just to cut to the question you’re already asking, no, that agent no longer represents me. Technically, he never represented ME, he represented the book. It’s sort of like a high school romance. At first the agent is hot in love with your book, and is convinced he’ll be able to sell it and make a little money for both of you. But it’s a long process and a lot of work and at some point, if there’s no pay off, the agent “falls out of love” with you and your book. So after a year and a half of trying to sell Chrissie, the agent waved the white flag on both the effort and the book. You part ways, and he/she goes on to fall in love with other authors and other books, leaving you to sit up late at night eating a tub of Ben & Jerry’s finest while weepily watching old rom-com movies. Or whatever the literary equivalent is.

And that agent was actually my second. A different agent had fallen in love with the book of pirate humor I had written with Cap’n Slappy – “Pirattitude!” – and was able to get it published, along with a sequel that wasn’t as good and didn’t do nearly as well. Then he was in love with my first novel, “Chance: A Tale of Caribbean Buccaneers,” which he called “‘Treasure Island’ for a new generation.” But a year and a half later, after he’d almost gotten it sold to a very big publishing house (seriously, I would have pissed my pants if he’d placed it with them), he fell out of love with both me and “Chance” and it was another breakup.

Both of those agents are on the list of ten I’ve come up with this afternoon. Because you never know, and at least we have that old relationship to fall back on. It’s like going to the prom with your old girlfriend. Maybe not your first choice, but at least you’re at the prom!

Anyway, I have a lot more names to add to the list. I’m using a spreadsheet with columns for the agent’s name, the agency, the address, any special instructions for submission, and a column to check off when I sent and if I ever heard back. You’d be surprised, only about a quarter even write back to say “no thanks, not what I”m looking for.” And I don’t blame them, they probably get hundreds of queries a week. They can’t spend a lot of time on things that don’t have potential.

I am NOT sending them out yet. I suspect the WIP will need at least one more pass before I think it’s agent-worthy. I just want to be ready.

Random Remarks on the Road

Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.

Random thoughts on our Texas Trek (our “Treksas?)

We were in Texas four days to celebrate the graduation of a family friend. Here are random thoughts and experiences from the sojourn.

Used to be, a perfect GPA was 4.0. It was the best a kid could do. Nice round number.

More than 800 kids graduated. Some of them were insanely smart. And one had an amazing name.
More than 800 kids graduated. Some of them were insanely smart. And one had an amazing name.

But then they started adding weight for honors classes. I guess it makes sense, I mean shouldn’t an A in honors differential calculus count for more than an A in remedial basket weaving? But it throws the scale off, and I guess there’s no such thing as a “perfect” GPA anymore. Just a really, really good one.

Max had a 4.3 GPA when he graduated from EJ, which is damn good, had him in the top 10 in his class which helped a lot for college scholarships. But he wouldn’t have gotten a whiff of honors at the graduation we attended Sunday. The LOWEST five of the top 10 all had 4.7s, calculated out to the thousandth of a point.

The kid who had a 4.800 finished fifth. FIFTH! He worked his ass off, got a 4.8, and only finished fifth. There must have been a moment when he said, “What’s the freakin’ point? I might as well cut the soles off my shoes, sit in a tree and learn to play the flute.” (Bonus points for any reader who recognizes the origin of that phrase.)

Can you imagine what went through the mind of whoever was 11th in the class? Undoubtedly had a 4.7something  and didn’t get a mention.

The top in the class was 4.8615, which was the highest GPA of any graduate in the district’s seven high school. And none of these kids, when they were introduced, seemed the least uber-geeky. They all belonged to a bunch of clubs, many of which they started, played in the band, were officers in state organizations. One was even an Eagle Scout.

Amazing kids.

Tori and Ricardo and his fifth grade science fair project. At the time he took the demotion of Pluto from plant to minor planet very badly.
Tori and Ricardo and his fifth grade science fair project. At the time he took the demotion of Pluto from plant to minor planet very badly.

The graduation we attended was for a family friend – Ricardo Lopez. The family – which we call The Lopi, which we maintain is the plural of Lopez – are friends from our St. Croix days. During our last year on the island, Ricardo was in the fifth grade class Tori taught at the Good Hope School. He was her favorite student she’s ever taught. He was a little round ball full of smiles. Now, somehow, he has turned into a tall, handsome young man who will be going to Pace University in New York in the fall.

Overheard at our table at dinner – okay, I didn’t overhear it, I actually said it – “So where do the cool kids hang out around here? (longish pause) They never told you, did they.”

I take a perverse pleasure in hearing people sigh and say “Only the Baurs.” Most recently as the graduates were parading in for half an hour, we started a kick line in our row.

The Lopez Family (or Lopi, in Baurspeak) at graduation.
The Lopez Family (or Lopi, in Baurspeak) at graduation.

Far be it from me to make fun of a kid’s name, but this one is truly impressive. Just to be sure, I’m going to change ONE LETTER in the last name of this kid. The graduate with the most amazing name I’ve ever seen was: Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Sadole. Wow. The name appears to be of Yoruba origin, translates to something like “God has regenerated me,” and statistically is more likely be a girl than boy, although either is possible and I missed his/her’s walk across the stage. (Give me a break, there were more than 800 kids in this graduating class.)

But when I spotted that name in the program I thought, “I’ll bet that kid can’t WAIT until she’s old enough to go to court and get the name changed legally to something simpler, something like Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Jones.

That’d be SO much better.

Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.
Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.

The drive to Houston (actually Katy, Texas, where the Lopez family lives. It’s an affluent suburb just west of Houston) takes about six hours and we drove straight out. On the way home, however, we meandered.

First we headed down to the Texas coast to get just a little beach time in. Most of what we saw was a lot like the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, much of Alabama, the Florida panhandle. Many rental houses on stilts, gas stations and strip malls. But the beach was nice, certainly better than Mississippi’s. And when we got into Galveston, that was actually quite nice. Very resortish, a well-cared for beach, good restaurants. Yeah, WAY too built up, but still the nicest place I’ve yet seen on the Gulf coast. I wish we’d had more time there, but we had only the one afternoon and night. I’d like to have spent a little time on the history of the 1900 hurricane that demolished the island, killing 8,000 people in the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Our drive home was “blue line highway” as far as we could go, staying off the main highways and interstate and poking around in the boonies. We passed through Port Arthur, Texas, a miserable place, all refineries and dust and oily smells. But it was the birthplace of Janis Joplin, so we paid our tribute. You could certainly understand why she was in a hurry to get out.

There was more, a lot more, crammed into four days. But anyone who has read this far has probably had their patience tested to the limit, and I really need to get on to other things.

on the beach Texas

What My Work in Progress Isn’t

I’ve been sitting down the last few days with a printed copy of the work in progress, reading and taking notes and getting ready to get to work on the second draft. I’m even using several different colored markers, although truth be told the different colors don’t actiually mean anything other than “this is the pen that was at hand when I had this idea or spotted that typo.”

I haven’t mentioned anything about what the story’s is about, or even the title, which would give the whole thing away. And I’m not ready to yet except in the most general way. I wouldn’t say it’s a “bad luck” thing to talk about it before it’s ready, but it sure doesn’t feel right. So I’ll keep my lips sealed about that, for now.

But I will discuss what it is not, and why.

It’s not a pirate story. Not because I don’t like pirate stories or have abandoned the pirate community, or have no new ideas for pirate stories. Far from it. I have one all but finished, as a matter of fact. I thought I’d have it out for Talk Like a Pirate Day last year, But there’s a problem wth the story and I haven’t figure out yet how to solve it. Something doesn’t quite work. Otherwise it’s a good story. One day I’ll pull it out, look it over, and the answer to the problem will be so blindingly obvious that I’ll rush it out. So I’m not out of the pirate game at all. (See below.)

But the work in progress is not a pirate story. It’s a contemporary story about three kids – two boys in middle school, troublemakers, and the high school sister of one of the boys who is grudgingly along for the ride (since she has a driver’s license and they don’t.) They’re in a very, very bad situation and the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. I’m aiming at a very specific market and the reaction I’ve gotten from reading the chapters to Tori’s sixth grade class tell me I’m on the right track.

It’s an idea that has been floating around our house since 2010, and where it came from I’ll discuss when I’m ready to reveal the book. But first I have to finish it, and that means a second draft, and a third. You just never know.

There’s a very real, very practical reason for doing this, for writing an adventure story that’s not in the pirate vein. First, it has the potential for being a series of books, and I like the idea of a steady stream of income. Second, I would very much like to sell my book to a publisher.

I had an agent who tried for a year and a half to sell my first young adult pirate adventure, “Chance.” Nobody said there was anything wrong with “Chance,” it was well written, a good story, great charactes. A friend – a retired college professor – read it for me and said he’d expected it to take about a week but he was done in two days because “I just couldn’t put it down.”

Chance made it to the last pre-publishing meeting at one of the very big houses. I would have been thrilled to be picked up by that publisher. Any writer would have.

But –

“No one is interested in pirate stories,” they said. “No one’s buying pirate stories.”

And other houses gave similar responses. “Good book, but we’re not looking for pirate stories.”

When I finished “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter,” it was even better than “Chance,” and “Chance” was good. Not “pretty good.” Good. A new agent was very excited about it, and tried for another year and a half before telling me, “No one wants a pirate story. It’s not the writing, it’s the pirates.”

So I decided to prove them wrong and self-publish “Chrissie.” I had a sales number in mind that I was pretty sure I could hit, and it would show the “know it alls” at those publishing houses that they were wrong. That people DID want pirate stories.

And you know what? The publishers were right. I have received a lot of great feedback on “Chrissie,” and sold a lot of copies, but nowhere near what I’d hoped, nothing like a number that would convince a publisher to take another look.

So I thought I’d give a try crafting a story I want to tell in a genre publishers think will sell. I’m having fun with the story and the reaction from Tori’s kids tels me it works. They laughed where I’d hoped, even showed me places where it was funnier than I knew, prompting me to double down on those bits. And they really get into the peril.

More importantly, by their reaction (or lack thereof) the kids pointed me to places where it needs work. I have a bunch of notes for the second draft based on their reactions.

But first I took April off for two other projects. Both of a pirate nature.

One is a podcast idea Tori and I had a year ago that will amuse us, even if no one ever listens to it. And yes, it’s a pirate story, of a sort. The other is a proposal from a friend in the pirate community to collaborate on a couple of projects that are exciting and different for both of us, and I was only too happy to take him up on it. They’re both his ideas, so I don’t want to get too far ahead. I got a good start on it during April.

I’m still in the pirate game. But the work in progress has taken me in a different direction, and it’s a good book. It’s a book that has a good chance of being published. I’ll be back with a pirate story sooner than you think.

The Ubiquitous Mr. Collins

I want to write a movie treatment. I have no idea what the story is or even the genre, and that’s probably an argument against pursuing it. But hear me out.

phil-collins-optimised-copyDuring the late 1980s, it only seemed as if every song on every radio station was by Phil Collins. Some of them were by Genesis – for which Collins was drummer and lead singer. I mean, he was everywhere.

I want to write a movie set in that period. I don’t have a story idea in mind, just this “thing.” Any time any character gets in the car or turns on a radio or walks into a bar, there’ll be a different Phil Collins song playing. No one mentions it, no one says, “Him again!?!” The movie will not be about the ubiquitous Phil Collins. He’ll just be all over the air.

At some point late in the going there’ll be a repeat, say “Easy Lover” comes on a second time, and the character will say “Not this again,” and change the station. And it’s a different Phil Collins song.

Now all I need is an hour and a half of story to fill it out.