Murder-by-Siri?

If we were having coffee today I think I’d have to fess up about a recent case of attempted murder.  No, not by me, silly.  It was Siri.
You see, Siri tried to kill me a couple of months ago.

My daughter lives about three hours north of us, very near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We had gone up for Thanksgiving with one of our grandsons and decided to try a different route south, mostly because the grandson lives west of us and I wanted to see if there was a more direct route, so I asked Siri.  She is generally quite attentive to such requests.
Indeed, Siri took us a different way, down a very unfamiliar path. But we were headed south so it seemed fine until we got to our second major turnoff. She spoke up

“Turn right.”

There were in fact what looked like two rights. We took the first.  Siri didn’t like that.  I have often thought any GPS with a voice should use an exasperated sigh when one misses a turn. Instead, she said,
“Turn around, when possible.”
GPS programmers take note:  this would be an ideal spot to program something like “No, No, No, the other right.”
There wasn’t any place to turn around. She repeated her request several times until we had gone more than half a mile.
At this point I guess I should mention a few pertinent facts:
I was in a rental.
I hadn’t purchased the extra insurance.
It was packed to the rafters.
I wasn’t inclined to do potential damage-inducing maneuvers.
I glanced at the map my phone and realized we were actually on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a particularly narrow portion of it at that.  At this point, I expected one of the famous overlooks you see about every half mile along some stretches of the Parkway.  Nothing. Just narrow road framed by dense foliage.
Siri finally decided to recalculate a new route and soon instructed us to turn left.

We took a left on what we were assured was a state road, State Road 814.
I remember thinking at the time, “How could this one lane graded road be a state highway.”
Yes, indeed, I really could have turned around here and yes, I should have. It was only about five miles back to the turn-around.
But I had faith in Siri. I knew she was going to get us out of this, so we proceeded down “state road 814”.  It was reasonable to assume that we would soon intersect with that other road.  So I drove on and on.

The problem was, there was no place to turn around on this road.

And what a road it was … we went up and down and around, and up and down and around.  We traversed a couple of mountains with long stretches of steep drop-offs with no rail. This was ear-popping, white-knuckle driving.

It was the kind of road that has periodic gates somebody closes in bad weather but it was so narrow, I don’t know how anybody could turn around if the gates were closed. I don’t know how anybody would or even could try to drive up there in a snowstorm to close those gates. Talk about “worst jobs in the world.”
My darling bride kept saying what a fun drive it was.  She wasn’t driving.  Thankfully we encountered no vehicles going the other way.  I have no idea what we would have done if that had happened.  There was literally no room for two cars to pass … not in my rental car, anyway.
Finally, after about an hour or so, the road started to level out and we began to see signs of civilization again.  Eventually, we emerged onto some pavement.  Yes, I saw a street sign, it WAS still state road 814 but we also found out it was called Campbell Mountain Road. We eventually hit another real, honest-to-goodness, highway, with pavement and stores and gas stations.  It was salvation.
 Siri kept plugging away with myriad directions and eventually got us to … the same highway we would have taken if we had gone our “normal” route. I stuck to it like glue the rest of the way home.
Okay, I guess she didn’t intentionally try to kill me.
But then again, she’s smarter than all of us and has the entire internet at her disposal.  Consider this: I did some simple searches for this highway for this post and I found the following warning in some directions to a nearby campground (The phrase I boldfaced below particularly caught my attention):
“WARNING: Please use the directions we have provided below for safe and pleasant driving. If you choose to use another source for your directions, please be wary if they include Route 814; this winding, gravel mountain road is not for the faint of heart. DO NOT take 814 if you have a camper or RV.”
Sound advice.
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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina.  Check out his books at http://thefensk.com
All pictures borrowed from Google Maps in the interest of public safety.
Yes, he’ll probably go try to find Campbell Mountain road again sometime.
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Steeling My Heart

Pound for pound, my favorite Christmas gift this year was my Baking Steel. That pound for pound comment was a joke. It is heavy.

Most people have heard of a pizza stone. The Baking Steel serves the same purpose, only much better. Think of it as a pizza stone on steroids.

I’ll tell you this: even my most mediocre attempts with it have been better than any pizza I’ve ever made at home. The crust is phenomenal.

baking-steelIt is basically a slab of steel, just like the name implies. You preheat it for about an hour. You assemble your pie, and using your pizza peel you launch it onto the hot steel. About 5-6 minutes later you retrieve it and … mama mia!

I’ve watched this company grow from their facebook postings over the last several years. I couldn’t take it anymore. “This is what I want.” The flat HEAVY present under the tree was no secret.

They make griddles too, although you could use the basic product as a griddle for something like pancakes. Just nothing with too much grease.

Check them out at http://www.bakingsteel.com

I know it is expensive but your grandchildren will thank you for leaving them this awesome heirloom. It will last that long.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. Hmmm, how about pizza tonight?

Check out my books: http://thefensk.com

Reflections: 15 Years On

columbia1Fifteen years ago today, I was driving south on US 29 in southern Virginia when I spied a bright light moving across the sky.  There were no blinking lights associated with, just a smooth steady motion, very bright, across the sky from West to East.

I knew what it likely was.  No, not a UFO.  I figured it was either the space station or the shuttle Columbia.  I also knew how to verify it, once I could get to a computer.  I had long been a space station watcher, and I knew a website where one could check for possible viewing opportunities.  It included other satellites, but nothing shows up quite like the space station or the shuttle.

I checked the website and found out it was indeed Columbia, well into its second week of a long mission.  It gave me a good feeling to know I had seen it pass because I had a special personal association with the shuttle Columbia.  In 1981 I had driven to Florida to watch the first launch.  It was the culmination of a lifetime fascination with space flight, dating all the way back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight.

Anyway, I didn’t think too much more about it that week.  Until Saturday.  Our son called and said turn on the TV, there was something about the space shuttle.  I was with our daughter Audrey and as the news channel came on a deep pit opened in the bottom of my soul.  “Ooooooo,” I said.

Audrey must have noticed visible shock on my face and asked me what was wrong.

columbia2I pointed at the screen.  “See all those trails in the sky?”

“Yes.”

“That is supposed to be ONE.”

She realized what I was implying and asked, “Can anything be done?”

“No.  It’s over,” I said, “They’re gone.”

It was a horrible tragedy, but space flight had always been dangerous and always will be.  Is it worth it?  As I sit here typing on a device that can trace its widespread use, along with the networking and other technology that make this communication possible, I’d have to say … yes.

In a way,  I always thought the Columbia disaster was even more tragic than the Challenger explosion because these astronauts had a very successful mission up to that point, most of it doing hard science.  And a high percentage of their data had already been transmitted home.  They had completed their jobs and were fifteen minutes from landing.  So close, in fact, that people were at the Florida landing area anxiously waiting for their imminent return.  It just never happened.

On a personal level, with the people and families involved, it’s a tough call, but every single person who flies into space has to accept the risk; they know it is extremely dangerous.  Life is full of such risks.  If we were suddenly whisked away from the nineteenth century and plopped onto the freeway into a car driving seventy miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars … we’d probably drop dead in fear.  And at any moment, even those of us who are used to it should realize that it is extremely dangerous and in a split second, we could suffer the same sort of fate as those astronauts.

I think Alan Shepard explained the astronaut side of it best when he said, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

columbia3Anyway, as we approach the fifteen-year anniversary of the tragedy I’ll be thinking about the Columbia crew and their families.  Tragedies like this make us all stronger and help to make space flight even safer. The shuttle was the most complicated machine ever built.  That we lost three out of five was regrettable, but even more regrettable is the fact that we lost continuity … we should have continued building them, making them better and safer, maybe a new one every four years. At the very least we should have had a replacement vehicle ready long before we retired the fleet.

Now, we are on the cusp of a new era of exploration.  There will no doubt be other tragedies.  Advancement sometimes has a high price.

If you ever want to spot the station flying overhead, you can sign up to get text alerts of when one is coming up.  Sign up here:  https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

I highly recommend it.  You can look up and think, “I belong to a civilization that can do stuff like that!”  When you think about it, in many ways it is as remarkable as building the pyramids.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina.  You can find out more about him and his works at http://thefensk.com

Note: his debut novel, THE FEVER, is available for a 25% discount for a limited time.  http://thefensk.com/fever.html

#Weekendcoffeeshare Return

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

If we were having coffee today I’d apologize and lament my several month’s absence.  I’m not quite sure what happened.  The WeekendCoffeeShare is sometimes a bit like a meandering river, changing course with little to no notice.  Plus, I was fairly diverted through the second half of 2017.  The major events were my dog dying in July and my mom passing away in October.  At some point I expected I would do a post about the latter (I think I did in fact post about the former), but I never felt quite ready.  I still don’t.

Then after a deep sip, I’d go into more recent events.

I had a nasty case of this awful flu that is going around.  My lovely bride got it much much worse than me.  I hardly ever get sick.  I had the flu once in the early eighties.  I remember that mostly because of my cat.  At some point I had dragged my sorry carcass out of bed to let her in and she came in  limping on three legs and bleeding.  I remember taking her to the vet and the doctor asking which one was the patient.  I must have looked awful.  That’s the last time I remember catching the flu.

Oh, there have been other things. I had pertussis in 1999.  That’s right.  Whooping Cough.  I’ll take a bad case of the flu over that.  I have no idea where I got it.  Luckily, somehow, nobody else in the house got it.  It was not confirmed.  I went to the doctor with a bad cough.  No tests.  Got a prescription.  But at some point I read up on the symptoms and more than that, heard audio of the resulting coughing spells.  THAT is what I had, I have no doubt.  Drop to the floor, piss all over yourself, almost suffocate, making that gawd-awful whooping sound as you gag for air … yep.

Had a bout of pneumonia in 2013 too.  No cough, no fever, I just couldn’t breath.  I work in a 24/7 industry and was working with a team on a worldwide conference call. It was as scheduled software installation project at 2 AM one Sunday.  We were behind schedule because a developer was uploading a last minute revised program for me to install on a series of servers.  I had felt a little off that day, but with no real symptoms.  I felt about the same when I joined the call.  Then, while waiting, I simply could not catch my breath.  I didn’t have chest pains but that was the first thing I thought of.  I went downstairs from my home office and took a full-strength aspirin.  I struggled to get back up the stairs and sent the project manager a quick note: “I have to leave.”

“What?”

I quickly explained the situation.  Protocol usually means I need to find my own replacement or call my supervisor.  She would have none of that and said, “we’ll cancel and reschedule …. go wake up your wife right this minute and go to the hospital.”

When we got to the ER, they put me on a heart monitor but the ER doctor pretty quickly decided on a chest X-Ray.  They were going to give me an aspirin too.  I told them I already took one.  “A baby aspirin isn’t going to do it, you need a full aspirin.”

“I took a full aspirin!”

The doctor was impressed.  I remember thinking, “what, they think they’re playing with kids?”

The X-Ray showed a pretty significant chest blockage, confirming pneumonia.  I responded pretty well to whatever antibiotics they gave me and went home the next day.  After waiting all day to take a treadmill test (they just wouldn’t let up on the heart thing).  That was the first time I had stayed overnight in the hospital since … well, I remember the premier of Bewitched was on TV the last time. Seriously.

Anyway, we are both on the mend … and I’m happy to be back.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina. http://thefensk.com

The Kindle version of his debut novel, THE FEVER, is on sale this week … 25% off.  This would be a great time for you to Catch The Fever.

Is it just me?

I was just thinking to myself … dang, it’s still January.  Is it just me or do November and December seem to fly past and after New Year’s Day, January just creeps along. Maybe it is just anti-climatic or something … after all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, maybe we just hunker down.

Well, the doldrums can get some help.   I got knocked off my feet by this awful flu that is spreading around, then we were snow-bound for several days.  My darling bride got the flu right after me (funny how that works, right?) and spent those snow days off her feet as well.  And here, now, we’ve got another week of January left.

Most of you know I’m from Houston Texas.  Suffice it to say, I didn’t grow up with snow.  I found an old family picture a while back of a dog standing in the snow in front of my great-grandfather’s house. It wasn’t dated but other similar pictures were from the roaring twenties.  I found a site that listed significant snowfalls in Houston.  It wasn’t a very long list.  I figured it was either December 1925 or January 1926.  One of those unusual years where it snowed twice in a short time.

The point is, I never personally saw snow until 1960.  Yeah, that one was on the list too … right before Valentine’s day.  It was quite an event.  I didn’t see snow again until 1973.  It snowed an unprecedented three times that year.

I’ve lived in NC since the late 1980’s … it snows more here, but not that much more.  We’re lucky to get a good snow every year or so.  The snowfall last week was unusual … close to a foot.  That is a lot of snow for this area.  I know you northerners and mid-westerners scoff at that but understand this: we have minimal snow removal.  Houston and Austin have almost none.  When it snows, those places virtually shut down.  We’re not much better, but we have maybe 10% more snow removal.  They actually do a pretty good job on what are considered main roads.  The problem is … 98% of the people don’t live on the main roads.  Side streets and side streets of those side streets become icy wastelands.  I lived for a couple of years just two hours north of here, in Virginia.  They get even more snow and you get spoiled by all the extra snow removal they have there.

I actually do pretty well driving on ice and snow, but I dislike testing my skills.  I don’t worry so much about going out of control myself, I worry about other drivers losing control and hitting me. Several times in my life, even when I lived in Texas, I’ve been in situations where I simply had to drive fairly long distances on snowy or icy roads.  It is a white knuckle experience that is taxing physically and mentally.  I even included a scene in my novel, THE FEVER, where the protagonist is dealing with exactly that situation.  In that scene, the heat in the car was not working so it was further complicated by episodes of his windshield being covered in a sheet of ice every time a big truck passed him.  Yeah, been there done that.  Write what you know, right?  Seriously, one reader even told me she had to get up and put on a sweater while she was reading that section.

Anyway I’ll take snow over ice any day.  Our last ice storm knocked out our power for five days and dropped about ten pickup truck loads of branches and trees on our property.  But that was in March and we were talking about January, right?
How did TS Eliot put it … April is the cruelest month?
Maybe. But January is probably the longest month.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina.
http://thefensk.com

Missing the Obvious

img_5454Marketing your own books is a pain.

There, I said it.  I worked in publishing for over twenty-years, but not in marketing.  Now I sort of wish I hadn’t generally ignored the marketing folks in my organizations. I sure could use their help these days.

I was in IT and I was awful to people sometimes.  Oh, I did my job.  I just evolved a bad bedside manner.  I wasn’t alone in that.  SNL had a series of skits about the bad IT guy.  I was just like that character.  “You need to hit tab, now enter, now up arrow … argggghhh, just get out of the way!”   Before you think unkindly of me understand that it was an uphill climb most of the time.  I mean, for example, I had a user who wrote correspondence in a spreadsheet.  Letters, she wrote letters using a spreadsheet.

Anyway, I have been out of publishing for almost twenty years now, and now, I’m back in it.  I’ve got two published books, several more in various stages of revision, and I’m bogged down trying to market my published books.

If you’ve ever been intimidated by the thought of actually writing a book, understand this:  Writing an entire book is hard.  Editing and revising that rough draft is harder. Marketing it?  Well, forget about it.  It continues to kick me in the ass every single day.

The heading of this post says “Missing the Obvious” … so here is a case in point.  I noticed something while was working on a twitter post about my novel, THE FEVER.

A review quote I had added to my Amazon page suddenly hit my eye.  It was there so I know I liked it enough in the past to include it on the page but the impact this time hit me like a ton of bricks.  “You’ll feel like you’re LIVING IN THIS BOOK …”

I have a lot of enthusiastic reviews.  It gratifies me as an author.  And they’re not all friends and family either, I promise.  But this statement, from an independent reviewer, well, that is the sort of thing that emboldens an author to continue on.

Then the old modesty gene kicks in.  “Gee whiz, shucks, Y’all …”

Thomas Fenske is a

 

More Scratching

It’s been a while since I shook things up a bit so I decided to change the title of the blog … I liked “A Smidgeon’s Toll” okay as a blog title but it never seemed to catch hold.  So for the new year, I guess I’ll try a new one on for size.  Scratching The Surface.  It more fits what I’m doing with my blog, and with my writing.

This reflects back to a pivotal scene in my first novel:

“… he had what I call ‘the fever’… it gets in yer blood and you can’t do nothing about it once you got that.”

“The fever?” Sam was amazed that Loot had used the same term he sometimes used himself.

“Yeah. Gold fever,” Loot said. “Or could be silver fever or hell, I guess diamond fever. It’s whatever gets under your skin and makes you scratch the ground looking to git rich. I reckon it musta been eatin’ away at old Slim all them years even after he couldn’t do nothing about it.”

Loot leaned forward and stared Sam right in the eye. “You got it too, aintcha?”

I always liked that scene … it clarifies the title and begins to show how serious these characters are about the personality flaw they both have that is at the core of the story.

Writing is not unlike the struggle of the character in The Fever.  It also gets under one’s skin … tapping the keyboard is akin to scratching the ground.  And now I’ve barely scratched the surface.

What gets under YOUR skin making you willing to “scratch the ground”?

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC.  http://thefensk.com

New Year Blues

After struggling with the Flu for a week or so, I’m finally feeling a bit better. Time to get back to work on the latest novel and start to tread the water on new trends of marketing. One attempt was a success, one was a bitter failure. More to come.

The weather continues to be a factor, though, looks like more frozen precipitation is in the forecast. Yeah, I know, the milk and bread thing is pretty common with winter weather. Ah, but with flu season, I noticed a similar effect with orange juice. The juice coolers were somewhat decimated when I dragged my sorry self down to the store to get more juice.

The real reason I’m posting right now is to try this email/blog/post feature. Yes, this is just an email, but it is supposed to post to the blog. WooHoo. I knew about it, just never enabled it.

You Snooze, You Lose

For the first time ever, I’m running a “countdown sale” on my novel, A CURSE THAT BITES DEEP.

Friday January 12 …. it’s 99 Cents! That’s 75% off, folks!

Saturday January 13 it goes up to $1.99, still a great bargain.

Sunday January 14, it will be $2.99, but still a good deal at 25% off.

Price reverts Monday. You snooze, you lose.

Murder, mayhem, suspense, a little romance, and ghosts? How can you go wrong?

But it is 99 cents for Today Only!

https://goo.gl/wB4zic

I’m Giving It Away!

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day … the Kindle version of THE FEVER is FREE!

Take a walk in Sam’s dusty boots and catch THE FEVER!  A riddle, an obsession, and a quest … what could possibly go wrong?

Don’t have a Kindle? Get the free Kindle app and start reading on your phone.

It’s only free for two days … get it NOW!

Happy New Year!!