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The Sound of Music

Alesis Strike Pro SE
Alesis Strike Pro SE electronic drum kit

Ever since I was a little kid and saw Animal on The Muppet Show, I’ve wanted to play drums. I tried to get a slot as a drummer in school band when I was in grade school and middle school, but we already had two drummers on the squad and the band teacher insisted I play trombone instead.

Jump ahead to my late 20s and early 30s. I bought an inexpensive electronic kit (Roland TD-7) and messed around with recording a few songs on my PC. I even played drums in a Creed cover band in 2001. It was fun to experiment with the drums as well as electric guitar, another instrument I’ve dabbled in since my 20s. For a while I had an Alesis QS6 synthesizer and used that in my recording.

I eventually sold the TD-7 and upgraded to an acoustic drum set — I’d use that to wake up the neighbors every afternoon. For personal reasons (divorce), I got rid of all my music gear in 2014.

Jump ahead to today (August 2021). The music bug is back in my brain (it never left, it’s just been suppressed) so I sold my motorcycle and used the money to get a new suite of gear. I’ve reconfigured my home office to be a combination work area and music studio.

So far my gear includes:

  • Alesis Strike Pro SE electronic drum set
  • Epiphone Les Paul Vintage Edition electric guitar
  • Ibanez Gio GSR200PW bass guitar
  • Luna Henna Oasis acoustic-electric guitar
  • M-Audio Oxygen 61 MKV MIDI keyboard controller

All of this is connected to a Macbook Pro running GarageBand via a Presonus Audiobox 2×2 USB96 audio interface. I use a Mackie 1202 VLZ3 mixer to connect the instruments in one place (the guitars are connected to Digitech multi-effects pedals).

Although I’ve played guitar, drums and keyboards in the past, I’m very rusty so I’m spending the next few months building up my basic skills and competencies. I also intend to study music theory and may even learn to read music.

My long-term goal is to compose a series of songs that are inspired by my first novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. The finished works would function like a soundtrack to my book. We’ll see how that goes.

No longer a motorcyclist?

I just sold my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650. This means I no longer own a motorcycle. Does that mean I am no longer a motorcyclist?

I don’t think so. Motorcycling has been a part of my adult life since late 2006, and I’ve ridden all over the west coast of the United States and Canada. Some of my life’s fondest memories are of times spent on two wheels. That will always be a part of me.

The fact that I don’t currently have a motorcycle doesn’t mean I’m not still a motorcyclist. It’s in my blood in many ways, and definitely in my mind.

You may be wondering why I sold my bike, “The Grey Mule.” It’s a bit of a long story, but ultimately it came down to a shift in priorities. I am moving back into music and composing, which isn’t an inexpensive hobby, and I needed a way to pay for it. I also needed to shift some things around in my home to make room, and by freeing up space in the garage, it freed up space within the house for my new gear.

Stay tuned for the new musical chapter of my life.

Day Ride to Kinzua, Oregon

Bear Hollow CG, Wheeler County
Bear Hollow CG, Wheeler County, on hwy 19 south of Fossil, Oregon

I took a day ride on my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 to Kinzua, Oregon (pronounced ‘kin-zoo’). Kinzua is an abandoned lumber community southeast of Fossil, Oregon. I used to hunt deer in the area with my father back in the early 1980s and wanted to go back to the area and explore around.

My intention was to ride the Kinzua Road (NF21) east from highway 19 to where it connects to highway 207. The maps and online resources said it connected and was open, and even the gas station attendant in Fossil said it was likely open. I rode east on NF21 to the location of where the community and mill site of Kinzua used to be, and spotted a small sign on the side of the road saying that access to hwy. 207 was unavailable.

No access sign, Kinzua, OR
No access to highway 207 from Kinzua, NF21, Wheeler County

I turned around and backtracked the 8 miles to highway 19, then headed south a few miles to have lunch at the Bear Hollow county campground (Wheeler County). The park was deserted, so I had it all to myself. After getting filled up with a lunch of dehydrated “breakfast skillet”, I backtracked my way westward to home.

Bear Hollow CG, Wheeler County
Bear Hollow CG, Wheeler County, on hwy 19 south of Fossil, Oregon

Just west of Shaniko and riding northwest along Bakeoven Road, I noticed wildfire smoke in the distance to the west. I had just ridden from that direction that morning, and although I could smell a bit of wildfire smoke when passing through Maupin, I only saw a bit of smoke haze to the south, near Warm Springs. This fire was new since I had just passed that way a few hours before.

As I approached along highway 216 toward the community of Pine Grove, I could see that the fire was burning very close to the road. There were no roadblocks and I there were cars coming from the west, so I assumed the road itself was still open.

S-503 fire, Oregon
S-503 fire, along highway 216 approaching Pine Grove, Sat. June 19, 2021

Just west of Pine Grove, I stopped to get a photo and some video of the fire. I couldn’t see the flames but could see how they colored the smoke a deep orange. The fire seemed to be burning about a half-mile from the highway. I continued westward uninhibited and made it home after riding 360 miles for the day.

The news labeled it the S-503 fire, and said it had ignited Friday night. It had burned 4,000 acres as of this writing and was only 2% contained. The fire incident map shows it burning to the southeast into the Warm Springs Reservation. The town of Pine Grove is on a level 3 evacuation alert. If the wind shifts and blows to the northeast, that small community would be in its direct path.

S-503 fire, south of highway 216, June 19, 2021
S-503 fire, burning a mile south of highway 216

Efficient Fiction — How To Be a Productive Fiction Writer

Writing in a notebook
Writing in a notebook

This article describes the methods I use and the steps I follow that have proven to be very effective at avoiding writer’s block and at meeting deadlines. This process is efficient, methodical, and productive. If you follow this approach, it is very reasonable to expect that you can write an 80,000-word fiction novel from concept to publication-ready in less than five months.

Prepare to be Creative

When the muse hits, be prepared. Keep a notebook or note-taking app handy (personal preference) at all times. Jot down even the smallest ideas that come to mind, whenever they happen — don’t rely on your memory alone.

I keep my notebook nearby when watching movies or listening to music. These activities give me ideas for character names or traits. I also find my muse when traveling. Seeing diverse scenery and meeting new people often provides inspiration for my biggest and best ideas.

Find your muse and keep your notebook handy for when creativity strikes.

Allow Creativity to Happen – Creative Place and Mindset

Find a place where you can focus on creativity without distractions. It’s not as important to find a particular day or time, as that is often out of your control. If you know that you only have an hour a day, or a few specific hours on a weekend, allocate that time and keep it sacred.

Get into your creative space and remove every distraction possible. Are you familiar with the way your brain says “Let’s talk!” as soon as you crawl into bed at night? That’s because your brain has your undivided attention. Use that technique to let your creativity be in charge. Simulate (metaphorically) that state of being under the covers, the lights off, comfortable — and free of distractions.

If you get your best ideas lying in bed, keep your notebook nearby. It’s not uncommon for nocturnal ideas to disappear by morning; don’t rely on being able to remember them.

Write down what comes to mind. Don’t filter yourself. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or anything formal. Just get your thoughts down on paper. Use position on the page to your advantage if the juxtaposition between ideas means something to you. Draw doodles if that helps. The whole point is to get a raw capture of what’s in your brain without imposing the distractions of formality.

Tip: I prefer a quiet room with a paper notebook rather than a computer, because it’s too tempting to check email or social media.

Give Shape To Your Ideas

The next step is to go back into your creative space but be ready to be slightly more organized. This will be a bit more of a problem-solving session rather than a purely creative time.

Read over your captured ideas and start to think about these things:

  • Characters — Who is your protagonist and who is your antagonist?
  • Events — What are the key, high-level events that will happen to your main characters?
  • Locations — Where will these events occur?

Spend a bit more care writing down your ideas. Don’t be afraid to use short sentences or even paragraphs if the mood strikes, but avoid being completely random or needlessly verbose. The point of this session is to give your raw ideas some initial shape and flow.

The whole purpose of this phase is to flesh out your raw ideas, with the end goal of turning it into a plot event list (an outline).

Define your Characters

This phase of the process is reiterative. I will often spend a few sessions focusing just on character development. I want to really get to know my characters and will write 1-2 page biographies about them. These bios will include physical descriptions, noteworthy events from their history, and personality traits. I’ll define their fears, ambitions, passions, aversions, likes and dislikes, enemies and friends, relatives, etc. Any detail about my character that might come up in the story ahead is noted, as well as anything that will inform how I write them — their mannerisms, way of speaking, etc. This character development is much like an actor getting into the head of the role they will portray. The only difference is you are creating that character from scratch, not mimicking an existing person.

Location, location, location!

Locations are like characters. I write descriptions of where they are located in my world and any pertinent or likely facts that may come up, such as population, elevation, climate, and prominent historical facts. I also like to define the location’s character. Is it lawless or does it have authoritarian policing? Does it have the smell of nearby swamps or industry? Are the residents matter-of-fact or carefree and joyous? Great writers let the environment their characters dwell within have a personality of its own, taking on its own character. It’s like the seasoning you add to a dish to make it taste that much better.

What Happens to Whom

Events are the things that happen to your characters as they move about in your environment. It also represents the order of things as they occur. Not every story is linear in how events are presented, so pay attention to the order of events as they actually happened. It’s okay to reveal events in a non-sequential order if you have a reason for it — does it serve the story? See the Tarantino film, “Pulp Fiction” for an example of non-linear storytelling.

Continue to flesh out your characters, locations, and events until you have an adequate amount of detail for your story.

Plot Event List

The purpose of this phase is to create a plot event list. It is a series of statements that describe each scene of your book, listed in the order they will appear in your manuscript.

Review your notes from the previous phase, paying special attention to your events. Write each event as a single sentence with a brief supporting paragraph to provide a little extra detail.

These sentences and paragraphs will become your scenes. You will write your book one scene at a time, helping focus your mind on what is at hand without being distracted or intimidated by the overall scale of your story.

Each scene statement and supporting paragraph should contain enough information to get your brain focused on what needs to be written. The scenes you write can end up being as short as a few paragraphs or many pages. The point is to keep each scene self-contained and about a single event as much as possible. It is reasonable to have between three and eight scenes per chapter, but don’t sweat it too much if you intentionally go above or below that number if it makes sense to do so.

The primary purpose of scenes is to break the book into manageable chunks as an aid to writing.

The final step is to organize your scenes into chapters. Although you may not have a specific number of words or pages per scene, try to accomplish these two objectives:

  1. Keep chapters at roughly the same length.
  2. Phrase or arrange your scenes in the order that makes the most sense for the story.

Primary Composition

Once you have your plot event list completed and organized into chapters, it’s now time to start writing the book itself. You should already have bios written for each of your main characters, your locations are well laid out and adequately described, and you know all the key events that will occur and the order they will happen — and the order they will appear in your story.

Start with your first scene. Read your scene statement (single sentence) and supporting paragraph. Read the bios of the characters that will be acting in this scene and review them. Like an actor preparing for a scene, get into the mindset of the characters and understand their motivations.

Without trying to edit on the fly, begin writing the scene. Don’t worry too much about the overall story — you already have that figured out.

A great tip is to compose the first scene of the book to be something that is short, snappy, and catches the reader’s attention without being overly informative. Raise questions but provide no answers, only hints. Give the reader a reason to read the next scene.

Now that you’re started, you will discover how all the prep work and processes really help you become a productive writer.

Hone Your Process

Find specific days and times during the week when you can write. Be as consistent as possible. I personally write on weekend mornings before the rest of the household is awake. I am focused, not distracted or worried about things, the house is quiet, and I don’t run the risk of other events during the day ruining my schedule.

If you only have an hour to write every other Thursday evening, so be it. Do what works for you, but be consistent. Set that time aside and make sure everyone who might take you away from it knows that you are unavailable and not to be disturbed. Period. Non-negotiable.

Even though you are properly writing your book now, this phase is equal parts creativity and production. You’ve already done a great deal of the legwork on your story. You know what’s going to happen to whom and where it will take place. All you’re doing now is filling in the details.

Because you are only writing one scene at a time, you’ve taken a huge undertaking and broken it down into manageable, easy to chew tasks.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Avoid the urge to edit yourself as you go. It’s not uncommon for writers to spend a needless amount of time writing and rewriting their opening paragraphs over and over again, spending more time working the backspace key than any other. Don’t do that. It’s like driving with the emergency brake on.

Our brains work in different ways depending on the circumstance. You will learn — if you don’t already know — when you are most creative, when you are most productive (they aren’t always the same), and when you are the most critical. These can take place at completely different times of day or days of the week, or even in different locations. I like to take a notebook to pubs and jot down my brainstorming ideas, but would never take my laptop to the same place for primary composition or editing. It just wouldn’t work for me.

Write in one session, and set aside another session to go back and read what you’ve written and give it a brief edit. Make them separate efforts. I’ll usually spend Saturday morning writing, often 2,000-5,000 words, sometimes more. I’ll then spend Sunday morning reading over what I wrote the day before. Sometimes I’ll review and edit on weeknights, but not often and not usually for long periods of time, typically an hour or less.

The following writing session, skim over the previous scene or two just to get a sense for where you left off. Read your next scene’s statement and supporting paragraph, read your pertinent bios and location descriptions, and start writing.

This is a highly productive process and you’ll be amazed at how many words you can write per week. It can be easier to produce six scenes of 8,000 words total than a single chapter of the same length. It’s a psychological thing, where you get mini-rewards throughout your sessions rather than bigger but delayed gratification at some seemingly distant point on the future.

Editing and Post-production

You have an editor, right? You’re not editing your own work, are you? Sure, you’re reviewing your scenes as you go along and making changes, but that’s not what I mean by editing. An editor is another person who’s sole job is to help your writing be the best it can be. They don’t write for you, they refine you.

Editing is a different skill than writing. The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches, and the best coaches aren’t always the best athletes. Editors are similar to coaches in that regard. Writing the story is your job. Making sure your story is conveyed in the best way possible is your editor’s job.

There are different types of editors, and there are different ways to work with them.

I break down editors into two types, and yes, they can exist in the same person. I call them story editors and line editors. I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor that performs both functions remarkably well.

A story editor makes sure your character development maintains the best flow and pace, and they keep you from changing the rules without realizing it. For example, a good story editor might say something like, “In chapter 17, scene two, you have the main character wielding their sword in their left hand, yet back in chapter 3, they held it in their right. Are they right- or left-handed? Ambidextrous?” They keep you on track. (This may seem like a trivial detail, but readers pick up on little things like that and will ding you in reviews for it.)

Story editors will also let you know if you are being overly expository (you’re telling the reader what’s going on instead of showing them) or if you need to expand what’s happening in a scene. They have opinions about what’s lacking, what’s glaring, and areas that could use improvement, but they often leave it to you to figure out how to solve these problems. Remember, the story is your job, they’re just helping you make the expression of that story the best it can possibly be. You won’t always agree with your story editor, but never do or say anything that might discourage them from being able to be honest with you. You’re paying them for their honesty. Value it.

Quick note: Editors are people, too, and some people are jerks. There’s a difference between giving honest feedback and being an asshole. Make sure you get along with your editor and don’t compromise your emotional health over it, even if they’re technically good at what they do.

Line editors will review your grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and other mechanics of your words, but won’t get involved in story or plot or how things feel.

Now that I’ve described the two types of editors, and hoping that you can find both skillsets in the same person (it’s cheaper that way), how you work with your editor is important.

Writer+Editor Workflow

There are two main ways to work with your editor. You can work a few chapters at a time, or write the whole book before your editor sees a single word of it.

As I mentioned previously, I write on weekends. I compose on Saturday, then review and refine my work on Sunday. I then pass along to my story editor everything I’ve completed over that weekend. They have the week to review what I’ve written and give me feedback. They often will send me a Word document with annotations noted within either through Track Changes functionality, or color coding/highlighting. They don’t correct my spelling or grammar, unless I am using an odd spelling or capitalization for something, in which case they might ask if it’s deliberate.

I’ll either spend an evening late in the week making any changes based on their suggestions, or I’ll spend the first part of my Saturday morning on rewrites if their suggestion warrant it.

This often equates to one to three chapters being written, reviewed, edited, and revised per week.

There are some benefits to this stepped approach. If my story editor has strong feelings about where things are going with a character’s development, or a side character has a lot of unfulfilled promise, they’ll often point this out. It can make me stop and think about my original story idea, and based on their feedback, I may decide to alter the planned events or character development points. I’ve also dropped entire chapters before because, based on my story editor’s feedback, they either weren’t adding anything to the story, or they just didn’t make sense. Changing the order of events can come up, too.

It’s important to keep in mind that I don’t share my plot event list with my story editor ahead of time. I want to get their feedback as a reader of the story, with their opinion fresh and untainted by me spoiling the story ahead of time.

“I really look forward to seeing what happens between Jane and John in the next chapter,” is something you want to hear from your editor.

Remember, give your reader a reason to turn every page and see what happens next.

Final Editing

Congratulations! After repeating this process chapter by chapter, you have completed the first draft of your story. You should not anticipate any significant rewrites, only minor revisions that don’t affect the plot much, if at all.

Once I have iteratively worked with my story editor through all the chapters, I will often leave my book alone for a week or two and not look at it or touch it. This is to give myself a sense of fresh eyes. I will then begin reading through my completed draft from page one. If I see misspellings or weird grammar, I’ll fix it, but otherwise I’m trying to get a reader’s perspective of the story as a whole.

Pay attention to the song, not the notes. Does it make you tap your feet or want to dance?

I will make notes about character development and key events, and decide as I go along if I feel they are serving the overall story that I wanted to tell. Is the story eliciting the emotions I hoped to create in my reader? Is it boring me? During this read-through, you should get a sense for parts that drag or go too fast.

Sometimes removing something can be just as useful as adding something new.

Once I have read through the entire manuscript, and made any revisions that I felt were necessary, I’ll turn the book over to my story editor for their full read-through.

I’ll review their suggestions and make any changes I feel necessary, and will communicate any things I disagreed with and why. They often give suggestions or feedback that can help me find a better approach to further improve the story.

Once those changes are completed, I’ll hand the entire manuscript over to my line editor (or the same editor if it’s the same person). This is where they fix all the typos and grammar and make the story mechanically sound. They will not be giving advice about plot, character development, or anything like that. Unless you have a very specific and deliberate reason not to, accept their edits. It is their job to focus on the notes and make sure a B-flat sounds like a B-flat; they won’t be focusing on the overall song.

Publication

Converting your story into an eBook or formatting it for paperback publication is beyond the scope of this effort. But, I will remind you that once you’ve got your book into Kindle or Nook format, or get your first proof copy in paperback, give it another read. Pay the money to get your line editor to review it in those formats as well. Trust me, you’ll still find a typo or two, and you don’t want a stranger who paid to buy your book to let you know in their Goodreads or Amazon review.

Tip: Hire a cover designer. Unless you’re a graphic designer, don’t cheap out by designing your book cover yourself, even with those widgets offered by Amazon and the like. Cheap covers make readers think the book is unworthy of their time.

Summary

Using this process, I have written four novels between 65k and 105k words in four months, each. I spent roughly the same amount of time in the three phases of planning, composition, and editing/production. In one case, the primary composition phase was the shortest, taking only 30 days.

I want to point out that I am describing here the process that has worked best for me. Everyone is different and you should expect to find your own changes and tweaks to this process to make it work best for you. If you’re one of those people who write on a daily basis, you can expect to reach your goal of a completed manuscript in a shorter amount of time (depending on the availability of your editor, of course).

Be open to various ways of working, but ultimately do what works best for you. Find your own rhythm and path. Writing a book is hard. Selling a book is even harder, but that’s another topic for another day.

Good luck!

The Power and Problem of Social Media

Social Media

Many have speculated — and I am one of them — that the problem with social media, and online communications in general, is that it removes a degree of accountability from those who wish to convey hateful or confrontational messages. It’s easier to call someone a bad name if they aren’t standing in front of you.

Since about 2008, I have seen the rise of hate speech online and a palpable vitriol in political discussions. Conversations about which political candidate is good or bad have been going on for centuries, but it seems that the level of animosity and outright hatred rose dramatically about the time a black man ran for President of the United States.

Was that latent white supremacy rearing its ugly head because it had a prominent target? Or was the hatred always there, waiting for an easy way to be unleashed and shared?

I think it was the latter. It’s a lot easier for someone to reveal their true racist colors and scream it at the world when there is no risk of consequence. If someone stands on the street corner and shouts, “I will -never- vote for a black man for President!” they are likely to be confronted, shouted down, maybe even physically accosted in some places. On social media, they can do so with near impunity, and have a much larger audience hear or see their message.

Social media, and the internet in general, makes it very easy to spread hate.

Legality of Free Speech

In the United States, we have an amendment to our Constitution that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

What many people confuse about our First Amendment right to free speech is that it doesn’t absolve a person for the consequences of what they say. For example, you can’t walk into a crowded movie theater and shout, “FIRE!” without getting into a lot of trouble — and putting many people’s lives at risk. You also can’t stand up in front of a large crowd and call for them to storm the capitol building, inciting a riot or insurrection. That’s illegal.

My primary point, however, is the double-edge to the sword of social media. We have the right to free thought and expression (within certain legal limits, of course) but with that freedom we also have the moral and ethical responsibility to be kind, truthful, and respectful. Just because you can say something negative about someone without consequence doesn’t mean you should.

Detroit Burned

The Cedars restaurant, Detroit, OR
Site of The Cedars restaurant, Detroit, OR

In September, 2020, a wildfire destroyed the resort town of Detroit, Oregon. Do a search for “Detroit” on my blog and you’ll see just how meaningful this town has been for me. I have ridden my motorcycles to this place more times than I can count.

The wildfire that took Detroit threatened my own home in Sandy. The boundary of mandatory evacuation orders came within a few hundred yards of my house. The smoke was so thick we almost left voluntarily just to go someplace with cleaner air. Only the risk of exposing ourselves to family members and possible transmission of COVID-19 prevented us from leaving.

Recently I traveled (by car) to Detroit to see the destruction first hand. The route I usually take along highway 224 through Estacada and Ripplebrook Ranger Station, and then Forest Service road 46 south past Breitenbush, is closed due to clean up efforts and risk of landslides. A section of highway 224 burned a few years ago after target shooters started a wildfire, and it suffered substantially more devastation during the latest conflagration. Instead, I had to drive down 211 through Molalla to Sublimity, and east on highway 22.

Reaching Detroit, I could see the evidence of just how massive the fire was. But when I stopped in the town itself and looked at the charred ground where The Cedars Restaurant and the Detroit Store once stood, I felt a deep sadness for what once was.

Detroit, OR, January 17, 2021
View of downtown Detroit, OR, January 2021, after the fire.
Detroit, OR store site
Site of Detroit, OR store, gone after fire.

In one lot where a building or home once stood, sticking up from the blackened ground was a white PVC pipe with a Trump 2020 flag attached at the top. The juxtaposition of a Trump flag in the middle of scorched earth was a profound metaphor for just how devastating his presidency was, and the profound irony of someone who refuses to acknowledge his incompetence and lies.

I am very curious to see how, or if, the town of Detroit rebounds and recovers. There is still a lot of work to be done and I saw no evidence of any new construction. Perhaps the locals haven’t returned — to what? — or have given up. Time will tell.

Where it All Started

Book 1: Ohlen's Arrow
Book 1: Ohlen's Arrow

Thwip.

The arrow sank deep into the creature’s throat and it fell backwards in a spray of blood, twitching and clawing at the wooden shaft protruding from its severed windpipe. The man lowered his bow and crouched behind the bushes in case there were others. He watched and listened to see if he had stumbled upon a lone cru’gan or if it had been part of a patrol. The only sound was the wet gurgling coming from the cru’gan’s throat. Soon it lay still and silent, and the only thing the man could hear was the evening breeze through the pine trees.

After several minutes passed, he retrieved his arrow and quickly searched the beast’s body, then rolled it out of sight under a pile of briars. He kicked dust over the creature’s blood, and then moved silently away into the forest amidst the diminishing evening light.


This is where it all started. The above excerpt is the opening paragraphs of my first novel, Ohlen’s Arrow. What does it say about an author who’s first word of their first book is “thwip“?

My intention was to create an instant sense of action and a feeling of mystery about the main character that compels the reader to continue the story. There’s nothing I’ve written that has been worked and re-worked more than that opening section, and in many ways, it is the work I’m most proud of.

I encourage you to read Ohlen’s Arrow and learn the rest of the story. It is my hope that it engages your attention and carries you captivatingly forward.

For Kindle and paperback editions of my books, visit my Books page.

Ride Report: Hillsboro, OR, 29 miles, 38 degrees

Steve, Meagen and Keith
Steve, Meagen and Keith, Nov. 20, 2020

I completed my longest bicycle ride to date, 29.3 miles. This ride had a few more milestones as well and some lessons learned that I will discuss here.

It’s the middle of Fall, the days are getting shorter, and dry weather is becoming the exception, not the rule. Fortunately, there was no precipitation on my day off, so my buddy, Keith, and I decided to get out on two wheels for a ride around Washington County.

Trek Domane AL5
Trek Domane AL5, “Riff Raff”, at The Bike Gallery, Portland, OR

When we met in the empty parking lot at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Oregon, it was 38 degrees and foggy. This would be my maiden ride on my brand new bike, a Trek Domane AL 5. I literally had never sat on the bike until that moment, and in fact it was also my first time riding with clipless pedals (although I have recently installed the same pedals on my spin bike at home).

Keith and I did a few laps around the parking lot so I could get used to clipping in and out of the pedals, as well as learn the hand signals cyclists use on group rides. Once I got the basics down, we set off.

29.31 miles, Hillsboro, OR
29.31 miles, Hillsboro, OR

The entire route was on public roads. Up to this point in the season, I have ridden exclusively on designated bike paths without having to deal with traffic (other than one day climbing the numerous hills of my own neighborhood, where everywhere you go is uphill both ways). Keith led and I followed.

It was a bit chilly at first, as you might imagine, but my gear did well at keeping me from getting too cold. I wore full-finger cold-weather cycling gloves, which were probably overkill by the time we’d ridden 5 miles or so. I also had to unzip my outer shell jacket to regulate my body temperature.

The route we took went counterclockwise around highway 26, the Sunset Highway, taking us on rural roads through some beautiful farm country. Most of the time we were on narrow two-lane paved roads without anybody around. It was nice to ride side-by-side with my friend, at a pace where we could hold a conversation.

There were some small roller hills to contend with and Keith gave me advice on how to prepare and handle them. I’m not yet in shape to handle hills of any extent, but I’m getting there. Overall, I was able to complete the ride without nearly as much struggle as I had expected.

About three-quarters of the way we came upon another cyclist riding a single speed bike. As I passed by I said, “Hey, you look familiar.” It was Keith’s wife, Meagen, riding a portion of the same route. The three of us completed the remainder of the ride together.

Meagan and Keith
Meagen and Keith, Nov. 20, 2020

By the time we got back to my car, we had ridden 29.3 miles in 2 hours, 15 minutes. It was my longest ride to date. Note: It is my goal to ride 100 miles by October of next year. I guess I’m 29% of the way toward reaching my goal.

What was noteworthy about this ride is I was using a bike I had never ridden before. I had recently purchased it from The Bike Gallery in Portland, after getting professionally fitted by Zak Kovalcik. The Trek Domane AL5 performed wonderfully. Although I had conceptually understood the value of a professional fitting, I could recognize its worth in a very tangible way on this ride.

I had very little problem clipping in and out of my pedals, but I still need to burn into muscle memory the way I shift gears on the drop-style handlebars. I’m used to the old style of mountain bike shifters where you use your thumb and forefinger. It won’t take me long once I’ve gone on a few rides.

I have decided to nickname my bike Riff Raff, after the AC/DC song and the character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Review: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

Wow.

I’ve been flying X-Plane 11 since it first came out and recently gave Microsoft’s latest version of its venerable Flight Simulator a try — it’s first update in over 10 years — and my first reaction is Wow!

This new version offers real-world satellite photography to dynamically generate the scenery, allowing the virtual pilot to fly anywhere in the world without having to pre-generate (or buy) photo-quality scenery ahead of time. The visuals are stunning and very realistic.

I already knew that would be the case when I decided to purchase MSFS 2020. What I wasn’t prepared for, but was delighted to experience, was how refined and elegant the interface and mechanics of the software actually is. This doesn’t come across as what is essentially a first-gen product. Refined really is the best word for how the simulator runs and how you interact with it.

I really like X-Plane 11, and still feel it is the more realistic simulation in terms of how it simulates flight. But MSFS 2020 is a leap ahead in terms of product quality, from how it installs to how it automatically detects and configures your flight control hardware to how you work with the AI and air traffic control systems once you’re airborne.

Comparing X-Plane 11 to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is like comparing a command-line version of Linux to the latest version of Apple’s OS X operating system. They both get the job done but one is substantially more refined than the other.

There’s that word again, refined.

Although MSFS 2020 is a new product and still has some bugs and functionality that’s not yet in place, this is a flight simulation product that all flight sim enthusiasts should try.

Just make sure you have two things: a large solid-state hard drive and a very fast internet connection.

Cycling Tips, Tricks and Tools

I am relatively new to cycling, at least in a serious manner. I rode bikes back in my 20s but would never have considered myself to be a cyclist. Since April of this year (2020), and the subsequent COVID-19 lock-down, I’ve gotten back into it, and this time I’m giving it a proper go.

Through this process, I am learning as I progress. I started off by buying a bike without a lot of thought into the purpose of components, frame, geometry, or any of that stuff cyclists pay attention to. For the most part, it was a reasonably versatile bike that the local bike shop (LBS) had in stock that was an eyeball fit for my height. Good enough. (For those who are curious, it is a 2020 Giant Escape 3 Disc.)

2020 Giant Escape 3 Disc

2020 Giant Escape 3 Disc

As of this writing, I’ve put 450 miles on the bike and have been bitten by the cycling bug. It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that it wasn’t the type of bike I need. The stock saddle was a nightmare (for my anatomy; for some it may be wonderful), so I swapped that out for a Fly Chromoly saddle from Terry. It was a noticeable improvement, but I still have tailbone pain after rides of 15 miles or more.

Terry Fly Chromoly saddle

Terry Fly Chromoly saddle

This leads me to my first tip: get a professional fitting and buy the bike best suited to your body and riding style based on their advice.

Professional Fitting

I went to Bike Gallery in Portland, Oregon (their Hollywood location) and paid $175 for a professional fitting. The process takes about two hours and covers practically every detail about my body, flexibility, fitness, and riding style. As a result of that fitting, I have ordered a Trek Domane AL 5 with carbon fork and Shimano 105 group set.

2021 Trek Domane AL 5

2021 Trek Domane AL 5

When the bike arrives, the technician at Bike Gallery will adjust all aspects of the bike to fit my specific measurements. I can’t wait! Stay tuned for a review once the bike arrives.

Clipless Pedals and Shoes

In addition to getting fitted for the bike, the tech at Bike Gallery also helped me choose clipless pedals and shoes. I went with Shimano RX8 shoes and Shimano pedals. Currently, I’ve been wearing flat-soled tennis shoes to go with the flat pedals on my Giant, but will be looking forward to clipping in.

Shimano RX8 Gravel Shoes

Shimano RX8 Gravel Shoes

The weird thing is calling them clipless pedals even though you are clipped in. Regardless, the benefits are consistent foot placement, a stable platform when you stand up while riding, and improved efficiency with every stroke of the pedals.

Fueling the Body: Water and Food

I have learned that drinking enough fluids and staying properly fueled both before and during a ride is very important. Drink a minimum of one full bottle of water for every hour you ride at a moderate pace on relatively flat ground, double that if you maintain a faster pace, climb any hills, or if the weather demands it. Drink small amounts throughout the ride, not all at once at long intervals apart.

It is also important to stay fueled. Eat complex carbohydrates and proteins that are slower to digest before the ride, and take with you small snacks to eat along the way. These should be easier to digest for quicker energy. I take fig newtons because they travel well, don’t melt when it gets hot out, and have a good combination of carbohydrates without a lot of artificial ingredients.

Apps and Ride Tracking

There are a lot of mobile phone apps available to help you keep track of where you go and how fast you get there. I rely on the Activities app built into iOS, and have added Strava as a third-party app. These give me all the data I need to see how my fitness level is coming along.

For data gathering, I use an Apple Watch series 4 to track heart rate and other data points. This data feeds into the Activities and Strava apps. I don’t currently use a separate heart rate monitor, but that may come down the road. I also do not have a cadence or power meter on my bike. Currently I use a simple bike computer that tells me speed, distance, and time.

On my home computer, I use a website called Kamoot to plan routes. It is free, although there are paid options. It is fantastic for mapping and determining relative difficulty of routes. These calculations factor in traffic volume, road conditions, shoulder width or designated bike lanes, and elevation gains.

Tools

There are a few simple tools and supplies you’ll need to maintain and enjoy your bike both now and in the future. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of bike maintenance; it’s easy and actually kind of fun. Keeping your bike in good shape not only makes it last longer (thus improving resale value when you upgrade), it makes the bike perform better which makes you perform better.

Your tires and chain probably need the most attention. Your tires need to be properly inflated based on their size and your body weight, so this requires an accurate air pressure gauge that can measure PSI (pounds per square inch) up to 160, and a pair of air pumps; one is compact and goes with you on the bike and the other is a floor model that you keep at home. Use your gauge to check your tire pressures at least every other ride.

You need a small bag of some kind that straps to your bike, either under the seat or attached elsewhere on the frame. In this bag you will carry a spare tube (or two), a pair of tire removal tools/levers, and a multi-tool with bits that fit all the main components of your bike.

I went with a Blackburn Local Ride kit, including multi-tool, bag, pump, and tire irons.

Blackburn Local Ride kit

Blackburn Local Ride kit

I recommend carrying a compact air pump to inflate tires while on rides, rather than the CO2 cartridge repair kits. Cartridges can run out but an air pump will keep working as long as your muscles hold out.

The floor model air pump you have at home should have a built-in pressure gauge and be able to reach pressures of 160 PSI or higher. I use a Bontrager Charger floor pump and have been very happy with it.

Bontrager Charger floor pump

Bontrager Charger floor pump

Your chain needs almost as much attention as your tires. Keep it clean and lubricated and it will serve you well.

I suspend my bike on the Hollywood hitch-style bike rack I put on the back of my car. This holds the bike above the ground at a decent height, and lets me rotate the pedals forward and back unrestricted. On the ground underneath, I lay a large sheet of cardboard to catch oil drips.

Hollywood hitch-style bike rack

Hollywood hitch-style bike rack

I use a large spray can of WD-40 to thoroughly wet the chain and sprockets, working the pedals forward and back and even shifting gears. I wipe this down with a box of paper shop towels. This cleans road grime, dust and dirt from the chain. Once the chain has been wiped off, I allow any remaining WD-40 to evaporate away. (Don’t use WD-40 as a primary lubricant.)

The next step is to apply a chain lubricant. There are many available, so I don’t have any specific recommendations. As far as frequency, though, I recommend cleaning and lubricating your chain after riding in the rain or on dusty trails, or every 150-200 miles, whichever comes first.

Learn To Fix Flat Tires

One final piece of advice I have is to learn how to repair a flat tire using just the tools and supplies (spare tube) you carry on your bike. It’s not a difficult process (there are plenty of YouTube videos showing you how) but it’s a good idea to practice once at home so you are familiar with what needs to be done when a flat occurs out on the roadside or trail.

I suggest you practice once for your front wheel and once for your rear wheel, as the process of removing those wheels from your particular bike are a little different.