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On Language, Idioms, and Where I Draw the Line

Snobbery is rarely acceptable, and hardly ever commendable. While it’s all well and good to know a great deal about anything the elicits your interest, there’s hardly ever a reason to use your command of the knowledge pertaining to said topic other than to share your passion with others and/or to better inform your private opinions. Opinions are, generally, better kept to oneself.

But… for today, the hell with that. You can feel free to stop reading, but I’m going to to go ahead and share an opinion and probably come off as a language snob; I care a great deal about the use of words, and when the language in question defies logic and skews meaning, I feel compelled to call it out. And stomp on its foot. And maybe kick it, too. Here’s the expression at issue: chop meat.

I recently moved to the New York City area after many years living in LA, and before that I lived in Boston and DC. I’ve also travelled around the States a fair amount, and nowhere but in New York have I heard anyone use the expression chop meat. What is chop meat? It’s ground beef, in this regional usage. Yes, ground beef, the stuff you use to make hamburgers, meatballs, meatloaf, taco filling, and so forth. Read more

Writing Is Hard – Part 2: In Flight

And so here we are again… meaning here I am again. Writing fiction. OK, not right here, exactly; this is more of a reflective semi-public journal. But I’m at it again, the fiction, these days.

It’s been a long time, I have to admit, since I have written fiction in any meaningful way. I’ve abandoned two manuscripts in the past two years, and it was painful to do so, but there came those points at which I had to accept that the sunk money fallacy was at play and simply stop spending my time and effort on stories and characters in which I found no passion. The reader would have seen right through it. Actually, the reader might simply have stopped reading. As I recently looked over some the pages I’d written over those years, I found plenty of fine paragraphs, some engaging dialogue, and even a few sentences and phrases that were just gems. But overall, there was something missing, something akin to what Stephen Pirsig was searching for in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Or rather what the late Pirsig was looking for in life: quality. When it’s there, you can feel it. Ditto the dearth.

And maybe I’m in the forest and only seeing trees, sure, but right now, the work I’m doing feels, finally, after many years, not like work at all. It’s a pleasure again. And I think that might damn well mean there’s quality. Averaging 900 to 1,000 words a session, and I’m writing at least five nights a week. It’s like old times, I’m glad to say.

What changed? What is it that helps a writer finally get his or her hands out from under his or her ass and get them back on the keys (or wrapped around a pen, if freehand is your thing)? For me, it involved a lot of changes and progress in life, sure, but also the removal of excuses (AKA bullshit) and a concerted plan. First I read a book and plenty of articles and essays about writing. Read more

Caesar’s Breath

As they tend to, this poem arrived almost fully formed a few years back. I don’t quite remember the context, to be honest, but I remember thinking: “Well, suddenly time to write another poem.”

I just can’t force them. I’ve given up trying.

A thought or sensation becomes a few words, which become lines, which become the piece. I may alter a word or two, maybe delete something a year later, even, but the bulk of any poem I ever share was written at the first pass.

You shouldn’t go out on the Charles anymore

The ice is too thin, I think.
You shouldn’t go out there when it’s like this.
The ice is too thin and you might fall through.
I know it’s tempting.
Believe me—I know it’s tempting…

Falling through

But don’t go out there anymore.
Spring is almost here. Soon it will be spring.
The ice will melt to water and go back to where it goes every year.

We’ve all got Caesar’s breath in us they say.
That’s a statistic: they say we’ve all got Caesar’s breath in us by now.

But which?
His dying breath,
Or just one in between?

A Few Places You Can Find My Writing

In case you were interested in something(s) like camping, hiking, the history of nuclear proliferation, terrifying sea creatures, homemade hot sauce, or the true meaning of April Fools’ Day, you can check out my articles on some of the websites to which I am a regular contributor.

I recommend starting with these two; may the general interest rabbit hole consume your lunch hour and beyond:


Good Old John Muir…

I spotted (OK, my wife spotted) a great John Muir quote in a magazine the other day, and I thought I would share it here; Mr. Muir’s wisdom so often strikes a chord with me, I can’t imagine others won’t appreciate hearing his words as well. But when I went to the web to cross-reference the quote and make sure I had it correct, I stumbled across one I liked even more. Here’s the OG mountain man dropping truths about mountains:

“Who wouldn’t be a mountaineer? Up here all the world’s prizes seem nothing.”

Truth, pure and simple. Those of you who bag summits are nodding.

Trying To Take Twitter Seriously

It’s been made rather clear by certain people who will remain unnamed (but who should not hold high office) that Twitter is a real force to be reckoned with. I should have been using it for a long time, but hey, no time like the present to hop to. In that spirit, I have started what I hope to be an ongoing series I’m calling TwitLitTips. It’s basically just stuff about grammar, writing, and diction I wish I could insert into conversations without coming across as pompous ass. That’s what these platforms are for, right?

Here’s a sampling of the first few #TwitLitTips… let’s see where this thing goes…

A Pithy Quote All Writers (and All People) Need

I came across this quote from the author Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Moneyball, and a few other notable nonfiction books) that got me right in the guts. He’s right on, and most of us are guilty as charged. Heed this one, people:

“People waste years of their lives not being willing to waste hours of their lives.”

Damn. That’s the truth.

The Death of Antonio José de Sucre

I wrote this story using excerpts from the essay “The Assassination of Sucre and Its Significance in Colombian History, 1828-1848,” by T.F. McGann, published August, 1950, in The Hispanic American Historical Review. Thomas McGann was my grandfather, though I never knew him; he passed away a few months before I was born. I hit on the idea of writing a short story using some of his words and some of mine a few years ago, and this is the product of that work. I kept a version with his writing made distinct through italics, but prefer to simply let the prose mingle.


The Death of Antonio José de Sucre


Steven C. John and Thomas F. McGann

                  The night of June 2, 1830, Antonio José de Sucre slept in a rude hut by the side of the trail leading from Popayán to Pasto. The hut was ten feet long and eight feet wide and set back a short stone’s throw from the road, but a thick stand of untended banana trees blocked sight of it from the path. The trail was rutted from wagons pulled through deep mud caused by rain that had fallen throughout much of the previous month, and the going had been slow.

Sucre and his men rode atop mules ill-suited to the poor mountain roads, having thus far spent their lives attached to plows. But there had been no time to wait for proper mounts, and no time to wait for the mountain road to dry out and harden. José Antonio de Sucre, the Grand Marshal of the Revolution, was homeward bound to Quito after the closing of the “Admirable Congress” in Bogotá.

“Admirable,” he whispered under his breath, looking around the small, dingy dwelling. “Mierda, puro mierda, nada más.” How many years had he given to this cause or that? More than any of it would last, surely. Almost surely, anyway. Read more

The Rocks Have Been Rolled Smooth by Waves

I wrote this poem while sitting at a sun-drenched table outside the main entrance of the main office building of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. At the time, I worked in that towering structure, the same building featured in Diehard as Nakatomi Plaza.

That was a while back, that part of life. This poem is one of the better things that came out of the whole ordeal. But that’s another story. I can’t remember the exact inspiration for this piece. Most of the limited number of poems I’ve written with which I’m truly happy take shape in my mind rather quickly, with the first and final drafts not differing greatly. I can write poetry well only as long as I never try to force it. Thus gaps of a year or more often passing between any decent verse.

So it goes. Anyway:

The rocks have been rolled smooth by waves

The rocks again rolled smooth by waves.

Some had once been humble mountains

Some had been old soldiers’ graves.

Others once were Grecian fountains

Hewn by long forgotten slaves.

Some had borne the painted wonder

Of shivering men who crouched in caves.

Many once were rough; were mighty

The rocks have been rolled smooth by waves.

Some had been the works of man

The rocks rolled smooth by countless waves.

Writing Is Hard – Part 1: Re-Ignition

Truth be told, writing comes rather easily to me. That’s true at least inasmuch as I seldom struggle with the mechanics of a sentence or to express an idea with relative clarity. I credit this to myriad sources, including a family adept at using the English language, a series of fine teachers in elementary and high school, and to the fact that I was all but constantly reading books between the ages of eleven and fourteen or fifteen; after that I still read heavily enough, but also did the other things teenagers do. Like whittling and leather tanning and such. And also, sure, there’s aptitude. We all have our strengths and stretches. Expressing ideas in writing is easier for me than for many; completing simple mathematical equations is, on the other hand, impossible.

So why do I say that writing is hard? Because when it comes to the type of writing in question, which is, FYI, narrative prose, the simple fact is that writing is hard. Especially when one has — like I have — spent too much time away from it. Read more