Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Who Moved the Road

I live in Prince William County Virginia. The county is some 70 miles long stretching from the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in the west to the Potomac River in the east. In the 20 plus years I have lived here the county has experienced rapid growth and development. For the first ten years I lived here a new traffic light was added every year between my house and the nearest interstate. After that point I lost count.

When I arrived the two ends of the county were connected by winding and dangerous two lane roads. One night shortly after we moved here my 8 year old daughter Hanna and I were heading home at about 8:30 in the night.  Our way was blocked less than a mile from the entrance to our neighborhood because there had been a fatal car accident on the bridge near our home. There was no promise how long it would be before traffic could pass. Our only option was a thirty mile circle around to the other side of the bridge and our neighborhood.  On these unfamiliar winding roads in the dark it was 10 pm before we got home.

The county is now spanned by two four lane divided roads. Other roads have been straightened and leveled, if you know where to look you can see some remnants of abandoned parts of the old roads that have been grown over and reclaimed by nature. Sometimes at what are now wide controlled intersections I try to remember what the road was like. What were the land marks?

One such intersection is Davis Ford and Yates Ford roads. There was a hill and a small nursery at the intersection which was more of a wye than the multi-lane intersection it now is. The funny thing is that often in the early spring I will see a wild turkey roaming around the intersection.  If the traffic is light enough he will be right in the middle of the street. I can only imagine he too is looking for the old landmarks to guide him to a favorite nesting place or food source. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Emergency Room Waiting Time 12 Minutes

I was driving north on Interstate 95 between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C., a little past the halfway point is the town of Fredericksburg. Like most Towns in Virginia among its claims to fame are at least one civil war battle, a college, Mary Washington, and a vintage downtown now populated with restaurants, antique store and boutiques. Unlike most Virginia towns Fredericksburg has two nice hospitals.

A new one has been built south of town and is visible from I 95. And visible from I 95 they have erected an electronic message board which is the real subject of these thoughts. The day I was passing by the message proclaimed, “Emergency room waiting time 12 minutes.”

 I have spent hours waiting in emergency rooms. My experience at our local hospital has generally been between one and four hours to be seen by someone and two to four hours to get out. So truly I rejoiced at this good news. I just wasn't sure what to do with it or why they were telling me this while I passed by on the highway.

Most likely I should just file this away with respect for what fine and efficient services this hospital offers and if I am ever in the area and need a hospital I should recall this.

Then I thought, why would I want to go to a hospital no one was going to? Maybe this hospital stays in business by luring in unsuspecting travelers?  Maybe they are the Bates Hotel of Hospitals?

Maybe there are ambulances that wander the Interstates looking for just the best deal for their patients.

Maybe I should have an emergency to take advantage of the time savings offered by this hospital.

Since I don’t drive this stretch of highway more than a half dozen times a year I don’t know what else they might advertise. The Washington Post recently reported that hospital charges for the same surgeries in Virginia could vary by tens of thousands of dollars. So they might flash up ‘Hip Replacement $45,000,’ ‘Tonsillectomy $7,000’ etc. Or they could post their infection rate or mortality rate or on the happier side they could announce births. Maybe they could take their clues from the DMV and post “Now serving number 897.”

North of Fredericksburg I cross the Rappahannock River and return to the world of talk NPR and I am able to move on in my thought process, but before I do let me ask, “Who thought an electronic billboard for a hospital was a good idea?”

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Just Let the Man Do It

There is an episode of Two and a Half Men, the Charlie Sheen show, where the ner’ do well brother, Alan, goes up on the roof to adjust the satellite dish. Of course he falls off breaking both arms. All through the show everyone keeps asking. “Why didn't you let the man do it?” Alan’s defense is, “A man ought to be able to successfully adjust his own satellite dish.”

I have a 1998 Jeep wrangler. I bought it with these wide off road tires. It’s like driving on four giant marshmallows. So when two of the tires went flat I decided I would get standard rims and tires off the used market. There were enough available on Craigslist that I only had to wait a week to get a set in Manassas. I paid a hundred dollars for four rims and tires.

Possessing both the tools and the skills necessary for the job I traded out the wheels. All was good and I loved the new feel when driving was exactly the change I wanted. Unfortunately after a few days of driving I had an odd clicking noise. I tried and tried to figure out where it was coming from, but to no avail. The car still drove okay so I drove it to church on Sunday morning. Just a few blocks from the church I felt a sudden bump and then my left front tire careened across the road while the left front part of the car came to a sudden and grinding stop on the pavement.

I walked to church while calling the tow truck to come for my car. And even though I said I would not be there and paid in advance for their service the tow truck driver called twice during church to say I needed to be there when he hooked up the car. I wasn't and they did just fine getting the jeep to the repair shop.

Between the towing and the repairs necessary to remount the wheel that came off my hundred dollars wheels and tires cost an additional $250.

And everyone said, “Why didn't you just take it to the man in the first place?”

I wish I could assure you I learned my lesson, but I still have my tools even if I don’t have the skills.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

To Heck With Suspense

Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #7

1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7.      Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  1. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I wonder if everyone would agree on this one. After all what’s the point if there is no suspense. Isn’t the fun of conversation that I don’t know what you are going to say next? Maybe not so much.

As I first started sending Henry to publishers I would write query letters that set up the twists and turns that set up the suspense to what I thought of as my creative moments. I finally realize the query letter was meant to lay out the plot to convince the agent or editor that I had an intriguing story. The first few pages that accompanied the query letter are to show that I had the writing skills to flesh out the story.

Several things go wrong when the writer is too invested in creating suspense. One is there is the possibility that we have left out more than we realize and the reader doesn’t get it. Have you ever had to reread a part of book several times because something very significant happened but it made no sense? Maybe this is the result of too much suspense and not enough story.

Secondly I am sure the reader enjoys a few surprises but I think they enjoy them more if they have been suspecting that this turn was coming. The first person Henry meets in Altara is the old man Papo. I originally thought of Papo as a Gandalf type guide to help facilitate the story. In Henry’s first three days with Papo Henry Goes back and forth about how much too trust Papo. The evening of the third day the reader and Henry find out Papo is going to facilitate the story by engaging in a plot to kill ‘Henry and the other boy.’

And finally not everyone is looking for suspense. The plays of Shakespeare are probably one of the most widely read and performed body of works in the English speaking world. Performances are attended by those who have read and even acted in these very plays. So we can assume for the greater part of the audience there is no suspense yet they are there on the edge of their seats. Why? They are there to see how the parts are played and the story told.

In my youth I reread the Lord of the Rings at least five times. The story always lagged in Book II and ended the same way in Book III. Yet I kept coming back. It is probably the same for some Harry Potter fans. Maybe we read and reread because we want to escape into that time and space.

Maybe knowing where the plot is going is like having a clearly planned road map for my journey. Even though I have a map there will be many sites along the way I don’t want to miss.


This is obviously the last of the Vonnegut blogs. The next four or so weeks will be blogs about some of my recent experiences and observations along the roadway of life.