29 October 2011

No, Thanks (in Advance)!

You've all seen it in an e-mail: "Blahbiddy-Blah. Please do X for me. Thanks in Advance!" How did it make you feel when you read that? Likely, you took it to mean that the person really appreciates you for helping them out. But is that really what they are saying?

Taken literally, they are saying, "I'm thanking you right now for something that you haven't done yet. I don't know how well you will do it, so you may end up not helping me at all, but thanks anyway." That kind of 'thanks' doesn't strike me as very meaningful. Instead, it seems a lazy way of checking a social norm box.

When someone does something exceptional for you, thank them at the point of delivery. If they tried their best but didn't end up being that helpful, you can still thank them (for their efforts, at least). Yeah, it might be one more e-mail clogging up somebody's inbox, but that is a small price for preserving a sense of value in the work that we do well.

23 October 2011

Pursuit of Science

Science is under attack by the ever masquerading, often lazy, sometimes malignant activity known as pseudo-science, but more often just called science. You don't just "do" science, you attainment it. Science is a goal. Just because you have charts and use data, does not mean you are using science. "The data don't lie" is the biggest lie of them all. The data could be wrong, not to mention being presented in a misleading fashion. Truly pursuing science means reaching to attain science. It is not cheap and it is not easy. . Pursue science, my friends. It is a worthy undertaking.

11 September 2011


Vidasu Valley & Moses's Path to the Sacred Gate

Aaron stared out of the hut’s window as the rain began to patter down on his hatch roof. It started lightly, but was quickly gathering force, both of wind and water. He looked over at his wife, Sarah, standing next to him and leaning out the window. As the thunderstorm intensified, so did her gaze. She was looking west toward the encroaching darkness.

All across the lower Vidasu Valley it was the same—men and women staring out of their windows at the drops pelting the wide, dry riverbed on either side of a paltry stream that ran through Vidasunha Village. Those with children held them close, whispering the ancient stories of the Lightening Prince in their little ears as they stared in awe at the mighty force of the wind bending the trees that dared grow on the ridge tops.

But Aaron was not looking west toward the impending storm or at the riverbed or at the trees on the ridge. He looked east toward the distant plateau that stretched across the horizon, rising abruptly from the river valley like an enormous wall. Aaron feared that this storm would not be like the others. He feared that the admonition he had been given by his half-starved friend was not just a delusional rambling. But most of all he feared that his wife would find out what he had done. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a squeeze. Her mouth curled up into a half smile, unconsciously it seemed, since all her conscious attention was on the storm.

The sky brightened slightly, indicating the first visible lightning strike over the horizon. Aaron began to mouth the prayer. His heart was not in it, but he made an extra effort to appear cheerful. Sarah was on the Rain Council after all, and it would not do for the husband of a councilwoman to abstain from the most important prayer. At first, as always, he could only hear himself say it. However, at the first visible bolt in the sky, he began to speak louder, and he could hear Sarah beside him, though still softly:

Light in the sky, chase the Rain,

Prick it here above my home

That it may bleed into my well,

Light in the sky, chase the Rain,

Vanquish it among the mountain tops,

That its lifeblood may flow from the East

Over the cliffs and into my fields.

As the rain fell, the riverbed quickly muddied. Small puddles spilled out of their little depressions and joined up with others to form large puddles. The stream in the middle of it all seemed to run a little faster, and a little higher. But this was just the teaser. The main event would come when a slight depression in the middle of the plateau overflowed, becoming a waterfall. It was amazing how quickly the riverbed would fill after that, rising right up to the banks, but never spilling over. It was Aaron’s favorite part of a storm, but today he anticipated it with dread.

In the pauses between flashes of lighting, Aaron offered up a prayer of another sort. This one was silent—and blasphemous—that the Cloud Demons would escape the Lightening Prince, just this once, and the rain would pass on.


Several miles east of the village, Moses hurried along the southern ridge of the valley, heading toward the plateau. With the wind at his back, he should have felt light. But he was weak. He had not eaten in three days. He was sore and cramped from kneeling on the cold stone floor of a repentance cell for the past week. The tendons in his knees felt like they might snap with each step.

Luckily, the trail was still dry, though he felt a rain drop on his hand, and then another on his cheek. Even after everything that had happened, and with everything that he now knew, the rain on his face still gave him a little jolt energy. It could not be helped, it was wired into a part of him no cynicism or anger could efface. But the storm would soon make this trail his enemy. It would become a mix of mud and puddles hiding roots and rocks. His stomach tightened and he had to bend over to heave, but there was nothing to come up. He needed rest and water. He would likely get neither until it was too late.

The uncertainty sapped his strength further. Was it already too late? He had no way of knowing. He staggered on, willing his legs forward with the knowledge that to rest now would be to fail and, whether they knew it or not, everyone in the village was depending on him.


Moses had spoken so quickly when Aaron visited him in his cell less than an hour before—something about a water gateway, whatever that was, and the river rising higher than ever before and everyone being swept down the valley and into the sea. Aaron could not make his mind understand what his friend was saying. It just sounded like a string of cryptic and impossible statements.

The village being swept away? The Priests had to beg for water from the Lightening Prince. Presumably, they were up on the plateau among the Oestalta Mountains at this very moment, shattering clay vases in honor of the Lightening Prince, as an offering that he might slay the clouds and let their water flow down to the village. But Moses had said the Priests were not in the mountains. Without the Priest’s prayers, wouldn’t that only make it more likely that the falls would not spill forth any water at all?

No, no, Moses had practically screamed, but he had not had time to explain. He just needed to be let out of the cell and he would explain everything later. Aaron would be a real hero; he just had to trust Moses.

The thing was, Aaron did trust Moses. Throughout their childhood, Moses had always been more faithful and honest than Aaron. Still he did not see how any of what Moses was saying was possible. And it had taken all his courage to lie to Sarah, saying that he was going to check on the irrigation channels one last time before the storm, when really he was sneaking away to see his imprisoned friend.

While the fear of being found out ate away his courage, his only regret was not thinking to bring any food to give to Moses. Perhaps that pang of guilt was what had given him the strength he needed to risk his life, pry the cell door open with a nearby steel rod, and free Moses from his captivity. Moses had shown this gratitude with a weak smile and dashed off toward the plateau along the valley's southern ridge. Aaron dropped the steel rod and ran home.

What Aaron did not have the strength for was to let on that he knew anything about the supposed peril they were all in, not even to his wife. They would never believe him anyway. He hardly believed it himself. The river had never crested the banks in Aaron’s entire life. The Priests knew exactly how many Cloud Demons to beg the Lightening Prince to slay among the mountains. Even if Moses was right and against all odds, he somehow succeeded in reaching the secret gate and stopping the supposed flood, Aaron would be hanged for faith-crime and maybe a bit of blasphemy for good measure.


Moses reached the base of the plateau. To the north, high above the river bed, he could see that a faint trickle had appeared over the edge of the plateau—the waterfall was just beginning. It misted away on the long descent to the valley floor below. He wanted to take a moment to muster some energy in his legs, but instead he just plowed on, starting the steep ascent up the now slick switchback trail carved into the side of the nearly sheer face of the plateau.

The rain was falling heavier now, but Moses was still ahead of the worst of the storm. This one would be bad; as a Waterman in the Preisthood he had been trained in what to look for, what to listen for, and how to sense the storm’s personality.

He had taken the trail up to the Sacred Gate once before, but that was years ago, and he had been heavily drugged on the Priests’ incense and a carefully cultivated sense of mysterious grandeur at what he had been about to witness. And what a sight it had been! After the grueling hike to the top of the cliff, the sight of the enormous curved wall holding back a vast reservoir of fresh water had been a revelatory experience for Moses. How important he had felt to be the keeper of such a precious resource. He remembered how much he yearned to share the experience with his friends and family in the village below.

But the Priests had him sworn to secrecy. And now that revelation was just another bitter burden for Moses to bear. The Priests had become too carried up in all their lore. In their delusions of grandeur, they had lost a sense of the practical. They had not established any contingency plans. There were only two Gate Stewards overseeing the Sacred Gates at any given time. No reliable way had been established to quickly communicate between the Gate Stewards and the Priests in the valley, miles away and thousands of feet below. Moses could not help but imagine all the possible tragic mishaps that could befall the village under such neglect.

Surely, the village had a right to know that their trust was misplaced. By bringing these risks to light, Moses would be protecting the whole Vidasu Valley. After all was that not the oath he had taken when he was anointed a Waterman in the Priesthood?

The Priests did not see it that way. They saw his call for transparency as a challenge to their mandate to protect the village. The traditions had been kept, unchanged for many generations, because they worked, the Priests had said. Who was he to upset the delicate balance of the already difficult life that villagers lived in the dry river valley?


Aaron saw a flash and heard an enormous CRACK. Sarah shrieked with a cry of pure ecstasy. Within seconds the whole valley was awash in the shouts of the faithful, cheering the Lightening Prince as He corralled the Cloud Demons east, over the plateau and toward the mountains of the Oestalta Range. Aaron screamed along with his wife. But his was a scream of fear.


The switchback trail was at river. Moses struggled to retain his footing as his legs burned and his stomach wretched. With every other switchback in the trail Moses faced the waterfall. The trickle had turned into a steady flow. The storm had caught up to him as he climbed the side of the plateau. He had no idea if he was already too late. Moses knew that the Sacred Gate was usually regulated by the Gate Stewards long before the first rains fell. But he had no idea if that was necessary or just another tradition with a long forgotten origin. He was not trained in Sacred Gate operation. Only Priests were. And if Moses’s suspicions were correct, all the Priests were dead.

07 September 2011

First Writing Course Complete

I just finished up my Arlington Adult Ed writing course. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was the only guy in the class. But even in a room full of women there were a lot of different writing styles on display each week. It was a lot of fun having to come up with a new scene or story each week and then sharing the stories with my classmates. I definitely felt a sense of community with them long before the 8-week course ended.

So now I have a stock pile of 3 or 4 super-short stories that I prepared for the course. Because I often threw them together in a few hours, they are still very "drafty", but I've been working on cleaning up one of them, titled: "Moses". It should be ready to post in a few days. As a teaser of sorts, I'm posting an early version of a map of Vidasunha and its surroundings.

Map of the Vidasu Valley

21 July 2011

My First Foray into Short Fiction: "Temptress of Fate"

Temptress of Fate

Jeff Shepley

The elevator was empty when she entered on the 7th floor. Five floors to pass through on the descent to the lobby—five opportunities for a stranger to enter and judge her with a quick glance and an awkward silence. Mercifully, the elevator reached the lobby without delay.

As she passed through the elevator doors and into the lobby she pulled her skirt down as far she could. It still just reached mid-thigh, but you can only cover so much with so little. Descending the apartment complex’s front steps and feeling the cool Sunday morning air wash over her gave her goose bumps. The sun cast an angelic glow on each shiny surface as she blinked the hazy sleep from her eyes. On any other day, she would have stopped to savor the cleansing tingle produced by the faint struggle waged on her skin between the cool air and the subtle warmth of the sun’s rays.

But today she just bent her head, letting her hair fall over her eyes and began to walk away from the apartment building steps at the quickest pace her three inch stilettos would allow. The first order of business was to put some distance between her and the possibility, however slight, that she’d hear her name called out from a certain 7th floor balcony. The thought alone was cringe-worthy,

God, I hope he doesn’t even remember my name.

Two blocks later, and with that risk out of the way, she looked up at the city skyline for guidance. “My lucky day,” She whispered under her breath with a faint smile that no one would see. Recognizing that she was already headed in the right direction was a small victory along the morning’s path to recovery. As she plowed ahead with renewed vigor, she felt betrayed by the duplicity of a city whose landmarks served as a beacon guiding her to the privacy and comfort of her apartment, but whose streets paved the way, quite literally, for this agonizingly public and uncomfortable morning excursion in the first place.

The ‘walk of shame’ is obviously a byproduct of urban culture. It’s not like girls in Nowheresville, USA don’t end up in strange beds on Saturday nights. They have tequila, even there. Only there is no way in hell you’re walking home from wherever you end up. And who can tell how short your skirt is or how high your heels are when you’re riding shotgun in a Ford F150?

As she let her mind wander through the logistical mine field that must be the one-night stand in rural America, she found her physical progress halted momentarily by the orange glowing hand on the other side of the crosswalk. She looked up and down the busy street, weighing the risk of dashing between each opening against the risk, increasing with every moment, that she might run into someone she knew.

She wasn’t the only one eyeing potential gaps in the flow of traffic. Just then a tall man jogged up alongside her. He was sweating lightly and his dark skin glistened as he bounced in place, panting softly as he waited for his opportunity to tempt fate. As she looked left and he looked right, their eyes met, and their gaze held. Perhaps in defiance of this stupid situation she had gotten herself into, or perhaps because she was startled by just how piercingly blue his eyes were—she held her side of the gaze. And he held his. A shiver ran up her spine. She had a sense that in that moment he saw through her own eyes and into her soul. She couldn’t help thinking that even if she had been wrapped up in a parka, she’d be just as exposed to his penetrating gaze as if she were wearing even less than she was now.

See searched his eyes for meaning,

Is he judging me? He must know that I’m wondering whether he is or isn’t. Surely, now that we’ve made eye contact for this long he has to say something. ‘Good morning’ would be the worst, but it’s inevitable. I can almost hear him saying it even with his mouth closed—so much sarcasm and condescension in his voice. God, just like my parents used to do when I slept in past noon after staying out too late.

He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m John.”

This cannot be happening to me right now.

She smiled noncommittally and willed him to just give up and jog away. Even so, he stood there unfazed, hand still outstretched, still bouncing in place, still smiling. She envisioned the scene as it would surely play out two years from now:

Me and John, engaged to be married in two weeks, yet finding time to attend his ten year high school reunion. John’s high school girlfriend walks up to us right as we enter the banquet hall, like she has been waiting for this all night. The ex’s name turns out to be Chastity. No ring on her finger—how terribly convenient. The two of them had split up after senior year because she got into Stanford and he was staying in-state. The split had been on friendly terms but they had lost touch through college. Chastity gives John a hug that lasts too long, takes an exaggerated deep breath, sighs heavily and says, “It’s so nice to see you, John.” There is no way I am going to let Chastity and John get into a big memory fest about summers up at “Lake Skinny-Dip” and winters skiing on “Remember-When Mountain”. But Chastity seems content to leave the distant past behind, somehow knowing the dark secret that will cut the deepest is tied up in a more recent memory.

“So how did you all meet?” Chastity asks with superficially veiled malice.

A simple question but I don’t dare let John respond. “I met her on the street during her walk of shame,” he would say. That was the only think he could possibly say, right?

So I step in, “It’s not that exciting of a story, really.” That little preamble was essential. I’m laying the ground work for ensuring that no awkward questions get asked later. If you expect the story to be boring you tune it out. I go on, “We first met one day at a crosswalk. Then we ran into each other a week later at the grocery store, in the ice cream aisle no less. Hahah,” I am laughing now, but I know it sounds forced. No matter—really the whole point is to put conversational distance between us and that god forsaken morning. I press on, “John loves ice cream of course. Anyway, we remember each other and he asked me if I’d like to go to this frozen yogurt place on...” I am about to say on 10th street when I realize with horror that maybe John used to take Chastity there. God, why is this so difficult? “…on a Tuesday. And I’m like, who goes on a date on Tuesday? Anyway, I said yes, of course, and obviously I so glad I did. We talked for hours. We had to get two frozen yogurts so the owners would stop looking at us like we were taking up too much valuable table space. Hahah, you know how it is?” The worst part of it is that through it all, I am staring right into Chastity’s eyes, trying to hold them as tightly as John’s is doing to my eyes right now. When Chastity looks over at John during the story, the hairs on my neck stand up. Is he following the story or is his mind stuck in that moment when we just met, thinking about who I had shared a bed with just moments before. Was he somehow communicating these salacious details to Chastity with that hot blue stare?

She snapped back to the present, John was still holding out his hand, with only the slightest hint of rejection beginning to furrow up on his brow, perhaps inspired by the confused look she was giving him,

This was not part of the atonement for last night’s sins. You aren’t allowed to meet your future husband while on a walk of shame. If I had had time to get home, take a shower, put on a cute summer dress and then walk down to the street to pick up some milk from the corner store, then you could meet your husband, your neighbor, your pastor, whomever, it didn’t matter. But on a walk of shame—it just wasn’t right. It could never work out.

But those eyes!

Somehow John’s eyes had wrapped all around her and through her and knew all these things that she was thinking, even now, and told her to take a chance anyway.

She tucked her hair behind her ears, reached out and grasped his sweaty hand. “Hi, John, I’m Megan.”

15 July 2011

Fictionalization of Second Glance

This past week I started an 8-week fiction writing class through Arlington County's Adult Education programs. The course is VERY basic, but my motivation is more than just educational--I'm taking the course primarily to motivate myself to write. So far, I'm about halfway done with the draft of my first assignment--a short scene (which I think could double as a very short story).

My 2 or 3 blog readers may have noticed that I have not blogged nearly as often in recent years. I ascribed this not to a lack of ideas so much as a diminished enthusiasm for writing in the blog medium. So I hope to express some of my new "bloggable" ideas through the medium of short fiction (stories anywhere from 500-2,000+ words). By "fictionalizing" my ideas--I'm sure there is a more accurate term--I hope to bring more life to the idea.

So why not a novel? I think my recent increased interest in writing short fiction has stemmed from a thoroughly practical matter. Weaving many ideas into a novel-length piece would take a lot of time and much effort, and frankly, I'm not up to the challenge right now. I came to a similar conclusion 6 years ago. But also, I've recently started reading short fiction and was inspired by what Paulo Bacigalupi was able to do with the medium in Pump Six and Other Stories.

Writing fiction, even short pieces, will take me a lot longer than writing a blog post, so I would not expect my contributions to this site to increase. In fact, I'm considering migrating to a more reader-friendly format for longer pieces. Suggestions welcome.