Sunday, September 30, 2012

Are There Many Good Writers In Tahoe? Yes.

Let's say you're a storyteller and you earn your living by arranging words on paper or computer screen. Unless you're a journalist who has to work from a certain location, you could live anywhere, right?
Pretty much.
That's why the spectacular places in the world have more than their share of writers.
Tahoe is no exception. I've met dozens of writers who live in Tahoe and more who are here part time.
Another writer worth noting is Jared Manninen. In addition to his words, he is an artist and illustrator of note.
Last night we went to a launch party for their recent books. Suzanne has just come out with Almost Somewhere – Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail.
Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Outdoor Lives)
 Buy it at Amazon

Suzanne's new book is the story of a hiking trip that she and two other women took on the John Muir Trail. Having read Suzanne's poetry – she has published three collections – I knew she would be a great prose stylist, and Almost Somewhere demonstrates this. I just started it after coming home from the party with my new copy, and I'm already hooked
Jared's book is Mega '99 – Adventures of an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker. 
Product Details
Buy it at Amazon
Jared's book is a fascinating illustrated account of the 2160-mile hike that took 167 days for him to complete.
The festivities were held at Bona Fide Books, Tahoe's very own publishing company owned and run by Kim Wyatt, herself a writer. (And editor and publisher and all-around great person.)
Among other books, Kim recently published Tahoe Blues - Short Lit on Life at the Lake.
Tahoe Blues: Short Lit on Life at the Lake
Buy it at Amazon

Tahoe Blues features sixty short works of flash fiction and true tales.

Check out Almost Somewhere, Mega '99, and Tahoe Blues,  three very different yet fascinating views into literature by Lake Tahoe writers. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Talent Has Nothing To Do With It!

Every author I know has had this experience. You do a signing, a talk, or some other event, and a person comes up and says that they would love to write if only they had the talent. Every time it happens there is a little voice in the back of our minds that wants to cry out, “Talent has nothing to do with it! Whatever writing skill I have is the result of years and years of hard work.”
The ability to write doesn't go to some luck of birth. Yes, we are born with more native skills in some areas than in others. Just as with athletes, good writers need certain body parts to function well. In the case of writers, it is our brains that must have at least several neurons firing in the correct order.
But in general, natural talent has nothing to do with how well we write. The difference between a good writer and a not-so-good writer is almost always a matter of how much the writer has practiced.
There are amazingly few writers who were able to write well at a very young age. (Truman Capote comes to mind.) 
The vast majority of good writers got good at it only because they ran a lot of words through the old Underwood. I was a lousy writer in the beginning. But my practice produced four completed novels that lie in a drawer and a half-dozen more novels that made it to the quarter point, the halfway point, and even further. I had practiced for twenty years before my “first” novel (the fifth I'd written) got a great review in Kirkus Reviews, a nice mention in Publishers Weekly, won Best Thriller of the Year award from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, and made the Cincinnati Library's Best New Fiction list.
If any person who wished they had the talent to write practiced enough that he or she also had an equivalent amount of writing in storage, you can expect that they would develop some writing skills as well.
I often tell people that learning to write is like learning to be a figure skater or a juggler on a unicycle. You can study it at length, take a multitude of classes, watch videos about it, join a support group, drink coffee with other wannabes and discuss the process forever. But none of that will teach you how to do it. To become professionals, most of us have to practice an enormous amount. The writer Malcom Gladwell has written about the ten thousand hours of practice necessary to get to a professional level of ability in any skill.
You have to go out on the ice or climb onto that unicycle and work at the process over and over. You have to fall on your butt a thousand times. Five thousand times.
 Hemingway =
 Kyle Petersen =

There is the old joke about the neurosurgeon who comes up to a writer at a book signing. The surgeon says, “You know, when I retire, I think I'll write a novel.” The writer says, “Really? When I retire, I think I'll try brain surgery.”
You don't expect to become a skillful neurosurgeon without an enormous amount of practice. You aren't born with a talent for brain surgery. You have to learn the skill.
Same with writing.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Bear Who Said, "Just You Wait, You'll Be Sorry!"

We had a recent bear incident, which reminded me of an evening a couple of years ago when I went for a “ride-along” with Truckee Police Sergeant Marty Schoenberg. At one point, as an example of the contrast between his law enforcement experience in the Tahoe-Truckee area and his past experience as a cop in the Bay Area, Marty joked about how a good chunk of the calls to the Truckee police are about bears.
Our first traffic stop involved providing backup for other cops who'd stopped a small car out of which emerged at least two more young men than you'd think would fit in a car of that size. A couple of them were teenagers, and in the bright flood lights of the patrol units, they showed a sullen look that suggested that they were up to something that runs counter to the wishes of California lawmakers. Of course, there are rules about evidence and probable cause, but those looks were hard to ignore. Their faces communicated without words... “Just you wait, you'll be sorry.”
Later in the evening, Marty got a bear call just as he'd predicted. We went to investigate only to find that the bear had already left the scene. Nevertheless, looking for the bear made me forget about the kids.
I thought of that ride-along a few months ago when I heard a noise in our back room. I turned to see a yearling black bear, maybe 150 pounds, on the deck outside the sliding glass door. He was trying to claw the door open.
Black Bear Yearling photo
in the San Francisco Chronicle

I walked over, clapping my hands and yelling something clever like, “Go away!”
The young bear just looked at me and continued to work at the edge of the door. He hooked his big, youthful claws onto the rim of the glass and scratched and gouged and pulled sideways to his right, apparently knowing that the door opened to his right.
Bears are smart, and they know that it is dangerous to mix it up with humans. So they generally wait until we're gone before they raid our houses.
Not this guy.
So, like a cop, I called for backup. My wife appeared with two large pan lids. She banged them together like cymbals. Despite a volume that was damaging to our ears, the juvenile-delinquent bear continued to ignore us. My wife moved next to the window door and banged the pan lids within inches of the bear, separated only by the glass.
The bear gave us a look that was very similar to the sullen look that those teenagers gave the cops the night I rode in the patrol unit. This “teenaged” bear moved a bit away, then stopped and turned back. I swear his eyes narrowed and his face looked like he was sneering at us.
“Just you wait,” I almost heard him say. “Sometime when you're gone, when you've forgotten about me, I'll be back. And you'll be sorry.”
He gave us one more glare of youthful antipathy and then sauntered away, taking his sweet time.
In Tahoe, we have a steady dose of bear incidents. There was a woman who lives a half mile from us. She took a nap on her deck and woke up to find a bear sniffing her face. Another woman came home, carried her groceries into her house and found the freezer door standing open. She turned around to see a bear sitting on the floor in the living room eating the Dreyers Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. Some vacationers recently came to the lake and parked their vehicle outside of their vacation lodgings only the have a bear break into the vehicle, climb inside and get stuck. Its panicked response was to tear up the interior, then shift the transmission into neutral and take the car for a ride down the sloping street.
Now, when I hear these stories, I think of our young bear and his sullen look. “Just you wait. You'll be sorry...”
I am waiting. And I'll probably end up sorry.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Have Lunch on the Beach, See the Earth Curve!

Not every day do you get an amazing science lesson during lunch.
Most days, I eat lunch at the computer, or I take a sandwich in the car to eat while driving errands. Then come the glorious exceptions. A cooler on the beach. My wife next to me. 
Some time back, the sun was hot, the air cool and clear. We found a beach log to sit on just ten feet from the lapping waves. Turkey sandwiches, chips, apples, perfection. Okay, I forgot cookies, so it wasn't perfect. But close. The water was indigo, and the mountains – Mt. Tallac especially – still had some small snowfields in the high bowls to the side of The Cross.
The cerulean sky was decorated with jet contrails from travelers who probably looked down and thought, “Oh, my God, look at that view! Why are we flying someplace else when we could have gone to Tahoe?!”
Our postprandial activity was sailboat watching through binoculars. There were a variety of boats transforming wind into movement and play. The most interesting one was across the lake about 10 or 12 miles, over by Cave Rock, just a flicker to the naked eye, but easy to watch in the binoculars. It had a tall mast and a beautiful sail curved into a graceful, power-generating airfoil shape.
But what made it striking in looks was that the sail had no boat.
That's what we saw. A sail going back and forth with no hull below.
That's how much the earth curves.
Tahoe as seen from SR-71 Blackbird from approximately 90,000 feet
Photo credit

It was fascinating to watch, this mast and sail dancing the waves sans boat.
Back home, I did some research. 
The simplest thing to say about the earth's shape is that it curves about 8 inches per mile. It would seem, then, that a 6-foot-tall person could see the water's surface about 9 miles away (6 feet = 72 inches. Divide by 8 inches – the amount of curve per mile – and you get 9 miles.)
Unfortunately, I learned that it ain't that simple.
The first complication in assessing long distance curvature is that with each additional mile, the earth's surface is curving away from you at 
an ever-increasing angle. Because of this, a 6-foot-tall person can see the water's surface only about 3 miles away.

If you want some techy explanation, go here:

This ever-increasing characteristic makes a huge difference as the distances increase.
If you want to see the waterline 10 miles away, you'd have to be about 66 feet up in the air.
If you want to see the waterline 22 miles away (the length of Tahoe), you'd have to be about 300 feet up in the air.
Now comes the second main complication. Because of the cool, denser air near the cold water's surface, light curves toward that surface just like it curves when it is refracted through a lens. The amount of refraction varies with different temperatures and other climatic conditions, but it can be substantial.
The result of this refraction negating the effects of curvature is that if you stand on Tahoe's North Shore, you may be able to sometimes see the tall hotels of the South Shore. But sometimes you won't because they are technically “below the curve of the earth” as seen from the North Shore. Only when light from them bends are they visible.
Of course, there is always one more thing to keep in mind. The earth's curvature is only noticeable when you are right down on the water. Most of the land around Tahoe is substantially above the lake. If you are up the mountain slope just a few hundred feet – as many of us are most of the time – then nothing on the shore is “below the curve of the earth.”
So next time you picnic at the water's edge, sit down close to the water and watch the sailboats with binoculars. You may be in for a science display treat!
P.S. Remember to bring cookies.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What? No Bugs in Tahoe?

In the Midwest, you will see a popular T-shirt that shows a picture of a large Anopheles Mosquito. Above the amplified, scary-looking bloodsucker, it says, “Minnesota State Bird.”
After we moved to Tahoe in 1990, we'd periodically hear people say things like, “I was at a barbecue last night, and I got bit by two mosquitoes!”
After hearing comments like this, a Midwesterner is tempted to respond, “Mosquitoes aren't really bad until they are swarming so thick that you can't breathe without inhaling them.”
T-Shirt from
One of the amazing things about Tahoe is that it has an arid summer and the summer nights get very chilly. Further, there is little flat land that collects standing water where mosquitoes and other bugs breed. The result is a dearth of mosquitoes as well as other bugs.
Yes, we still have a few significant bugs. I remember the first time my wife was doing some planting in Tahoe and she showed me a bug in the dirt the likes of which neither of us had ever seen. It was scary-looking enough to make your heart flutter and large enough that it looked like it could fly away carrying a small cat in its clutches. I looked it up in my bug books, necessary research tools for writing one of my characters, Street Casey, who is an entomologist.
The bug turned out to be a Jerusalem Cricket, otherwise known as a potato bug. They are as harmless as they are imposing. They are also somewhat rare, and they never show up in your kitchen or bedroom. Like the best bugs, they stay outside in the dirt where they belong.
There are a few other bugs in Tahoe. We have a good supply of carpenter ants, which usually, though not always, stay out of your house. As with most places, termites can also be a problem.
Probably the most common annoyances are spiders, especially the Turret spiders, but they don't bother you unless you are a carpenter ant or other insect, which they feed on.
And that's about it.
If you take the total amount of bug encounters that a Tahoe person encounters in a lifetime, you might add up to one week's worth of bug encounters in the Midwest or other similar places with wet summers and a flat landscape to collect the puddles that are perfect for bugs to lay their eggs.

Tahoe has few flat, wet areas that provide good bug-breeding grounds.
Our lakes (yes, we have lots of lakes) aren't good for bugs because they are too cold.
Bottom line is, Tahoe has very few bugs, and that is another reason why it is such a wonderful place to live or vacation.