Closing up shop here!

Howdy folks! Since blogging regularly is clearly not in my make-up, at least not now, I’m going to be shutting down this site in January. I’ve moved over to my new web home at wherein I’ll be putting the latest updates on my writing and other adventures. Thanks for following along.


My Eulogy For My Grandmother

This is the text of my eulogy for my grandmother, Ruth Ronald, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 94. She was my last surviving grandparent, having outlived her husband by 54 years, and my other grandparents for nearly 30 years. She touched a lot of lives, and I’m just starting to grapple with the size of the hole in my own life created by her passing. I hope my words are worthy of her memory.

Good morning. I’m John, the oldest of Ruth’s eight grandchildren, and father of two of her nine great-grandchildren.

My job today is to talk to you about my grandmother and her life, but I don’t think a dry recitation of the facts and particulars can do justice to her memory. What tells you more about a person: where they were born, lived, worked, raised their family? Those are important, sure, because as you’ll hear, being a Minnesotan did indeed help make Grandma who she was. But these bits can only sketch the outlines of the portrait of a person.

To know someone, well enough to remember them, you need to know what they loved. And that’s what I’m going to share with you today, a few of the things Grandma loved.

There is a line in The Princess Bride in which Inigo Montoya, the character played by Mandy Patinkin in the movie, says “I shall explain – no. Wait. That will take too long. I shall sum up.” So this list, or any list like this, for a person who spent ninety-four years on this Earth is going to be incomplete. I’m sure I’ve missed some things. But I feel confident these were some of the ones closest to her heart.

Grandma loved to travel. Some of my earliest memories I have of her revolve around the presents she brought for my sister Karen and I from her trips. Because when you’re little, it’s all about the loot, right? Her passport had stamps from all over, Spain to Columbia, Poland in the ‘80s, cruises in the Baltic and trips to New Zealand, and other places besides. She didn’t neglect the US, either. I’m hard-pressed to name a state she didn’t at least pass through. Larry, I’m sure, can regale you with tales of some of those road trips. The fact that one of her nicknames within the family was “Sidetrip Grandma” might give you a clue about how trips with her might go.

Grandma loved the Redskins, win or lose. She was still following them this fall. I remember well from the year I lived with her while I was in college, seeing her in her recliner in the den, under her afghan, watching the games on Sunday or Monday night. I think it’s fair to say she’d have a few choice words for Dan Snyder and how he’s run things, delivered in that “more in sorrow than in anger” tone that marked her as a Minnesotan. But two things that could make her happy on a Sunday, the Redskins winning or the Cowboys losing.

Grandma loved teaching, and she poured herself into that work for more than 20 years. She taught here at St. Catherine’s and then in Montgomery County. She taught elementary school, mostly third and fourth grade as I recall, and frequently classes for gifted and talented students. I really believe that what she found fulfilling about it was unlocking young minds, and giving those kids the knowledge and the structure they’d need to continue to explore knowledge, and the world. She was a curious person herself, and there’s no one more curious than children, and I think she enjoyed taking them on those journeys of discovery.

And she did love children, though that upper Midwest reserve meant she was rarely expressive about it. And it’s definitely true that her love for kids was sometimes tempered by her love for order, because children are pretty much entropy incarnate. And we won’t even talk about teenagers. Oh, she loved them still, but they did try her.

Speaking of order: you may have heard the expression, “You can have it done your way, or have it done for you.” Well, that wasn’t the case where Grandma was concerned. If you were doing it for her, you were doing it her way. Or you’d do it over until you did it her way. Or you waited until she wasn’t around and just presented results. Which had better be up to snuff, or you were doing it over anyway.

Grandma loved telling stories, and especially in the last ten years or so I noticed she more and more frequently shared stories from her childhood and youth. One evening when my daughter Alexa and I were at dinner with her, she regaled us with the tale about how she and her little friends used to play in her grandfather’s bakery. Until the day they mixed up the sugar and the salt, which led to a bad batch of bread, and then lead to a battalion of outraged Polish housewives descending on her grandfather. She told stories about growing up in Minneapolis, and living in Hawaii, stories from the places she’d visited and things her students had done. And, of course, stories about her family.

And stories leads me to books, because books were one of those things she loved fiercely. You only had to look in the den to see the packed shelves, or talk with her for any length of time to know she was a reader. She read broadly and in some areas, deeply. Vacations could be measured in how many books were read, and sometimes by how many books were acquired. If you needed a gift idea for her, a book was often a good choice. And books were one of the ways I connected with her most, because it was a passion we shared, and the question “What are you reading?” is one she always had an answer for, and she loved talking about books. She was still reading, and reading as widely as she could, until very recently. In fact, while she was at the rehab center, she pressed a book on Alexa and I, asking us to read it to see if we could make sense of it, because she thought it was just silly. Alexa rose to the challenge and it proved to be a time travel romance, which it’s safe to say wasn’t Grandma’s preferred genre. Uncharacteristically, she’d only made it through chapter four before pressing it on us.

Grandma loved her faith, and this church and parish, of which she was a member for more than fifty years. If a Saturday visit stretched over into Sunday, you were trekking up the hill to go to Mass. The tradition in our family for many years was to come to Grandma’s house for Christmas Eve, and often we stayed for the late Mass. Many of her oldest and dearest friendships were formed in this parish. She taught at the school, and she was a member of clubs and organizations here for many years. She wasn’t overly dogmatic in her faith, but she was true to it to the end.

She loved her independence, and she fought hard to retain what she could as her physical capabilities diminished. It is certainly true that as the years went on, the true extent of that independence declined. But at the core of that drive was a determination to meet the challenges of her life on her own terms. You did what you needed to, she once said to me, or at least you did what you could, and you kept doing it as long as you could manage to. You could call it stubbornness, and you might not be wrong; but I call it determination, and determination was as clear a mark of Grandma’s character as her intellectual curiosity.

But most of all, Grandma loved her family: her children, the grandchildren and great-grand-children, her parents and siblings, her aunts and uncles and cousins. She always wanted to know how the far-flung members of the clan were doing, and she was the go-to person if you had questions about that yourself. No birthday or other milestone went unmarked, and she could, and would, recite with fierce pride the achievements of her kin. And that kinship wasn’t solely that of blood, because if you brought someone new into the family, they became hers as well. She love most having them around her, not just for holidays or birthdays or special occasions, but for whenever it was possible to gather. And you knew, without fail, that if there was a meal, then grace would be said, and after the prayer she would say “And we are thankful that we’re all together,” or words to that effect.

And here we are, together, because of our love for her, and for each other. Grandma, you may be gone, but I know each one of us carries a piece of you with us, now, and ever after.

No Plan Survives Contact With Reality

And the reality is that my work-in-progress, which may be about to steal the title of a potential future story, isn’t going to be done by the end of November.

I came to that realization on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, upon hitting the roughly 60k words-mark in the first draft. It was supremely liberating as I knew Thanksgiving weekend was going to be busy, especially with my wife Michelle on the other side of the planet. (She’s in Taiwan for professional reasons.) This let me enjoy the annual Black Friday Game-a-thon at my friendly local game store (FLGS), Games and Stuff; to spend Friday evening binge-watching the last half of season 2 of The Last Kingdom; and to do a lot of reading. Oh, and a bunch of household chores that had backed up.

My understanding of the real story that I’m writing, the things hidden behind the helicopter chases and fight scenes, has also had a chance to percolate up from the depths. That understanding goes beyond the WIP, too, into the cycle of stories I hope to tell in this universe. The influence of current world events, and the laying bare of our understanding of the true underpinnings of not just US society, and not even Western societies, but a particular set of cultural moments that are occurring world-wide right now-resurgent nationalism, the rise of strongmen, the oligarchs ascendant-my brain has been steeping in this for a while, and it’s no wonder that my story is becoming colored by it all.

So: goal reset. End of the year is the current objective, which is once again doable if aggressive. And I see already the rough shape of the revisions I’ll need to make to the parts already written, but those are January’s work.

From Beginning to Middle

I’ve been heads’ down banging away on the (still-untitled) work in progress for the last month. This has entailed a couple of rounds of the merry game of “This is a better idea, now I need to re-outline the rest of the book.” The most recent round occurred last night; I reached what I realized was the true mid-point of the story on Monday, around the 52k word mark, and it wasn’t where I’d planned plot-wise.

Which is OK! Even though it has made me re-think the ending of the book.

Which is again OK, because I think it will make for a more cohesive story. The originally-planned ending took things off at an angle that might be better used for a what-comes-after tale. If I get to write it, anyway. Because that is definitely gonna be sequel material, and a lot less understandable without reading the WIP.

In any case, I’m more-or-less still on track to wrap up the first draft by the end of November. Which means my free time for November is pretty much spoken for; writing is what I do at least 6 days a week. It’s taken a conscious effort to carve out time for one of my face-to-face RPG games, and I’m managing to get some reading in, because I start losing my shit if I don’t keep those things (and people!) in my life. (And of course sword training on Sundays, and the other rare occasions I can sneak it in.)

It also means I leave the house around 6 AM and get home between 8:30 and 9 PM most weeknights. But hey, this is the ride I’ve signed up for. (And which my family supports, to my undying gratitude.)

So: that’s where the new book is at, and what I’m up to.

(And “The Frozen Past,” my first book, is still out on query. We’ll see what happens. These things take time.)

Meanwhile, back to the word mines.

Take A Knee

This veteran not only supports the athletes “Taking a knee” today, I agree with them. If you disagree, it strikes me that you may not be listening to their message, the thing they’re trying to bring attention to: “Please stop killing us.” Because that’s what is happening. Police in the US have killed at least 721 people in 2017 in less than nine months (source: Washington Post database). That’s on track to beat the 963 killed by police last year.

The single biggest factor in whether police will shoot someone they apprehend is the color of their skin, not the crime for which they are being sought. Many, it turns out, were innocent. Whites who are sought for the same offenses, even violent ones, are much more rarely shot. These are the facts.

Acts of protest, by their very nature, make us uncomfortable because they force us to consider aspects of ourselves, and of our nation, which we don’t want to believe are true. If this protest bothers you, I urge you to stop for a moment of introspection and ask why that is.

Trust me when I tell you that it takes more moral courage to make a stand like these people are than it does to jump out of an airplane.

And for those who are saying that athletes (or musicians, or artists, or writers) should just shut up and do their jobs: becoming a public person in the execution of your profession does not remove one’s right to speak out against injustice.

All respect to Colin Kapernick and those following the path he’s blazed.#TakeAKnee

35 Years Under Oath

On September 22nd, 1982, my dad drove me to the AAFES Station, the enlistment center at which I’d signed up for delayed entry back in April that year, and dropped me off. I had joined the US Army, signing up to for MOS 19D – nineteen delta, in Army parlance – a Cavalry Scout. I’d also volunteered for Airborne training and, upon completing that, was to join the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

I’d never been in a plane until the day I flew from Baltimore to Louisville for Basic, and I’d already volunteered to jump out of planes. People tell me they understand me better when they know that bit of my history.

But before I left Baltimore, I stood in a room with a number of other young people – I don’t remember how many anymore, it was probably twenty or so – and took the Oath of Enlistment:

“I, John Francis Appel, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Being an atheist, I left out the “So help me God” bit at the end, which you’re allowed to do.

(And don’t ever let anyone tell you there are no atheists in foxholes. I was hardly the only one when I served, and there’s plenty serving today.)

Basic and AIT were tough, no doubt about it. I injured my left knee in the second full week of Basic, which put me on crutches for about a week, and limited some of my physical training for a week or so after that. It hurt, sometimes badly, right up until we got a break for Christmas and I went home on leave for a couple weeks. It still bothers me occasionally today.

But I finished, if not in a particularly distinguished fashion. I went on to Fort Benning for Airborne School, and after some difficulties there, got my wings and headed to Fort Bragg and the 82nd.

I spent four years in the Regular Army all told, going from Fort Bragg to Fort Hood in ’84. Sergeant’s stripes came in 1985. Leaving the Regular Army in July of 1986 – two months early courtesy the Graham-Rudman budget cutting bill – I spent a year in the Army Reserves in the Operations shop of a reserve Special Forces group. (I’m always careful to say that I served in the 11th SFG but was never a Green Beret. There’s another story there.) In 1987 I switched over to the MD National Guard and back to being a cavalry scout, and in July 1988, I took off my uniform for the last time.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 I briefly looked into re-enlisting, but was told pretty firmly that I would almost certainly be sent to Korea to free up a currently-serving guy to go to the desert. That was the last time I considered going back into the Army.

Next year, 2018, will mark 30 years since I became a civilian. But probably surprises non one who knows me well that in many ways, I still consider myself bound by that oath I took as a skinny teenager back in ’82.

My military service was a formative period of my life; not one event, but a big string of them over those four years full-time and two part-time. It’s hard to count the number of roads not taken and possible alternate Johns populating the multiverse from the choices I made during that time. But while I’m not the same person I was in 1982, or even ’88, there can be no doubt that the core of the man I am today was formed in the days I wore “Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet” on my chest.

I have a deep and abiding affection for the US Army, and the 82nd Airborne in particular, and most especially with my fellow paratroopers and cav scouts, past and present.

But that affection is tempered by what I truly believe is the over-veneration of those in uniform. A free and democratic society should not place blind and unblinking faith in those under arms, for what history has shown us again and again is that that path leads to authoritarianism. Those who bear force and exert power over life and death in the name of the nation must be held accountable, and I believe, should welcome that. I fear the infiltration of our Armed Forces by people who want to bring about an authoritarian state – or at least would be willing to stand aside as one was created.

And everyone’s heard the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” One doesn’t need to look too hard at recent history to recognize that the answer to our issues in the world can’t always come from the barrel of a gun, or the weapons bay of a stealth bomber, or the launch tubes of a guided missile cruiser. After one of the terrorist bombings in Paris a friend posted a cartoon of a Godzilla-sized GI wading the Atlantic, rifle held overhead, saying “Hang on, we’re coming.” That bothered me greatly, because we have more to offer the world than our soldiers, more than our prowess at violence and ability to project at least some bit of our power to damn near any spot on the planet. We can’t solve all the worlds problems by shooting them. It’s entirely the wrong solution to many of them.

And yet: I am proud of my service. I am proud of the Army, while recognizing its many imperfections, for despite those it has so often done the long, hard, dirty work that needed doing, without the flash and glory-seeking of some of the other branches. (I’m looking at you, Marines.)

I’m not certain how else I’m going to mark this day, besides this post. It’s a working Friday, so I’ll go to the gym. My day job hours will be spent as a protector of a different sort, in information risk management. I’m deep in the draft of a new book, so I’ll most likely stop somewhere to write before I go home. Since it’s Friday I might head over to the pirate bar for a glass or two of rum before calling it a night.

But I’m sure at some point I’ll think back on that skinny, nervous kid with the big glasses who had no idea what was going to happen, and marvel at how his life has turned out so far.

Convention Report – May & June

It’s solstice time! Well, just past, anyway. And time for a check-in on the three conventions I’ve attended so far this year.
The SFWA Nebula Awards Conference kicked off my season over May 18th – 21st. Pittsburgh hosted the event this year, and the location was by and large terrific. The event space itself was just the right size – not too crowded, but not so spread out that you couldn’t easily get to things or feel like you were missing out because things were happening elsewhere. The con suite was a bit tight, and there was an issue Saturday night with the post-award party – we were loud, and there were non-SFWA people on the floor, so the party had to relocate downstairs. But otherwise, the facility worked really well for the size of the event.
I got a lot out of the programming too, and so did Michelle, who came along with me. Mary Robinette Kowal and her programming team have worked very hard to make this a convention both for pros and “early career” writers, folks like myself or just a bit further down the path, i.e. those with a few sales under their belts. But the established folks were warm and welcoming to those of us working to break in, sharing their knowledge and experience through the formal sessions as well as in pick-up conversation throughout the weekend. My VP 20 pals Karen Osborne, Jo Miles, and Jennifer “Macey” Mace had similar experiences. All of us met a number of people at all levels of the field, and I think we all walked away with some new friends and contacts.
One of the highlights was meeting astronaut Dr. Kjell (pronounced “chell”) Lindgren, the toastmaster and a life-long fan of science fiction. Dr. Lindgren also very graciously took about 45 minutes on Saturday to chat with Karen and myself about medical issues in zero-gravity and vacuum, things very relevant to our works. Five-year-old John was bouncing up and down, but 52-year-old John managed to comport himself more-or-less like an adult during our conversation.
The following weekend brought Balticon 51, my local con. Now, despite being a lifelong fan of science fiction & fantasy, last year was the first time I’d attended Balticon for more than a single day. Balticon 50 in 2016 experienced a number of issues, organizationally and logistically, but those were mostly ironed out this year.
I split my time at Balticon between volunteering with the science track, attending panels, socializing, and being on panels myself. I wound up sitting on five panels: one on worldbuilding, two on cyber & hacking (one science track, one on hacking & cyber ops in genre), one on infodumps which I moderated, and one on “writing after the workshop”. I’m not sure I was at my best on the first panel, but found my groove after that, and one of the panelists on the infodump panel complimented my moderation.
Assisting the science track team turned out to be a great experience. Balticon has a very strong and varied science track, which isn’t surprising given the sheer number of research-related institutions in the region. My volunteer gig was running the camera while recording the sessions, which meant I got exposed to a lot of cool science – everything from the science of touch to dinobirds.
Balticon also featured a lot of hanging out with friends, both people I already knew and others I met at the convention.
My most recent con trip was the one I’d been most looking forward to: 4th Street Fantasy in Minneapolis. Where the Nebulas is a professional conference, and Balticon is very much an old-school SF/F con, 4th Street is something of it’s own beast. Programming is a single track of panels, ten in all over the weekend, and the topics are at a pretty high level, intellectually-speaking. But what I was most looking forward to was the opportunity to connect up with my Viable Paradise 20 tribe; fully fifteen out of the twenty-four of us attended.
Man, 4th Street was a blast. The Cheese Weasel Reunion was everything I’d hoped for, and I got to spend some time with a couple folks I didn’t get as much time with on the Island as I’d have liked. We got to have a little send off for our classmate Karen Osborne, who’s headed to the Clarion writing workshop later this week. And, of course, about half the VP instructors were there as well.
I was a little nervous going into Saturday as Scott Lynch, who runs the programming for 4th Street, had approached me a week before about being on a panel titled “Dreaming Under Darkening Skies: Writing and Living During the Cold War,”, and I’d accepted. Knowing I’d not only lived through the last half of the Cold War, but that I’d served in the US Army during the Reagan years, Scott thought I’d have an interesting perspective to offer. Fortunately, my co-panelists Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, and Marissa Lingen were awesome and it was easy to fall into dialogue with them, despite it being the first panel of the morning. I quickly got over my jitters and folks seemed to really get something out it.
(Let me just say that I’d pay money to listen to Stella Evans, John Chu, Arkady Martine and Max Gladstone talk about whatever they wanted to for hours. Their Sunday panel on “idea commerce” was by itself worth the trip to Minneapolis.)
I got to meet still more awesome people at 4th Street, fans and writers alike, and am
already making plans to go back.
“But John,” some of you are likely saying, “Wasn’t there some sort of controversy at 4th Street?” Yes, there was, and I don’t mean to diminish the impact it had on good friends of mine. But that warrants its own post.
One convention left for the summer for me: ReaderCon in July. Meanwhile, back to that story about paragliding telepathic gene-tweaked smart dogs.
And one final note: I’m participating in the Clarion Workshop Write-a-Thon in honor of my friend Karen Osborne, who is attending this year. My goal is to write 25,000 words between June 25th and August 5th. You can sponsor me (either a one-time donation, or a per-word pledge) here.