New Computer & Oath Updates

I noted in my last post that Old Hilda, my 8-year-old Windows Vista desktop PC, was not long for this world. The DVD drive had failed at the time of that post, and the hard drive was making terrible groaning sounds. Over the next few days, USB ports began to fail, one by one, and some other death-agony nonsense prevailed.

However, I was able to get all my data off safely, and had backups to rely on just in case. After making sure nothing important or unique would get lost, I put in an order for a new computer and sat, anxiously crossing my fingers, waiting for it to arrive.

Yesterday, a MacBook Air arrived from Apple, via UPS, and I had everything transferred, set up, and ready to go within a couple of hours. My offsite backups both worked for recovery and transferred their attention to the new machine flawlessly, all of my writing and other important projects made the leap without a hitch, and both my external hard drive (for on-site obsessive backups in electrons) and my printer (for on-site obsessive backups on paper) are fully compatible.

So far, I’m nothing but pleased. The battery life seems to be a bit less than the advertised 11-12 hours (it’s coming out more around 8 hours), but this is, I think, less a problem on Apple’s part and more a consequence of the fact that I have my anti-virus and backup services churning in the background, and that I have a browser window open for music streaming while I work most of the time. And in any case, 8 hours is better than any laptop battery life I’ve ever had in the past, so I’m really not inclined to complain.

In terms of software, all I’ve had to rebuy at this point is Scrivener (because I like it a bunch) and Freedom (because sometimes the Internet is a beautiful siren, and I need to plug my ears and tie myself to the mast), whose licenses didn’t carry over from my Windows PC. Thus far, I haven’t needed Word, but we’ll see if client work happens to require it. For myself, a combo of Scrivener and Pages is working out very nicely. About the only thing that has me flummoxed is why or how it is that Pages won’t read .rtf files—but I’m sure the answer to that is all of a Google-search away.

It’s kind of a big shift, reacquainting myself to both doing all my work from a laptop and warming back up to the Mac operating system. The OS itself is nicely intuitive, and I haven’t really missed much of Windows, to be honest. But it is still a bit of a trip to find myself back on a Mac.

The last time I worked day-to-day on a Macintosh was probably 1996, when my family’s Mac Performa 560 (my dad bought the Money Magazine Edition, for whatever reason) was consistently failing to keep up with the needs of the household. To remedy this, Dad got us a Windows 95 machine, which was great—except for the fact that transferring my ginormous crapstack of ClarisWorks 2.0 files was time-consuming at best. Some of them are still lurking in my backups in .cwk format as a result. (I will eventually figure out a means to properly future-proof them.)

But from that point on, I did everything in .rtf, .wps, or .doc (and later .docx), and when I went off to college in 1999, I took an IBM ThinkPad with me that ran on Windows 98. It, as well as a couple of other, newer laptops, kept me typing between ’99 and the very start of ’07, which is when I got Old Hilda. The machine I was using summarily shat its pants, taking everything on the hard drive with it (thank Crom for backups), and I was left at the start of the semester—this is when I was back in school, beating my head against the English department for a second BA—without a computer.

So off to Best Buy I went, and though I wanted a laptop, I knew I could get more computing power, and thus more longevity, out of a desktop, so that’s what I got. And up till yesterday, that was my primary computer. Now its work is done, its hard drive is wiped, and it’s waiting to be parted out or recycled. And here I am, after almost twenty years, back on a Mac.

It’s curious, and not a little symbolic for me, that I ended up back here. If we’re being practical about it (and why not?), it’s mostly because I despise Windows 8, I’m tired of playing 24/7 malware sheriff, and because Macs look like they come from the future. They also have a better end-of-service resale value than Windows machines (the approximate value of which appears to be “I will give you five dollars if you’ll just come haul this thing off”).

But if we feel like being fuzzy and narrative about it (and why not?), part of me feels like I have circled back around to the place where my writing started, way back with The Lost Novel, and that this is a nice way to start in on the last stages of the current novel.

And that’s what you’re really here to read about, isn’t it? So let’s talk Oath of Blood.

At this point, I’m down to the fixing and the fussing. Nothing story-wise is set to substantially change. For better, for worse, or for late-in-career regrets, things are what they are. The business I’m about at the moment is making sure all possible inconsistencies have been dealt with, the text is as well-written as I can make it on my own, and that I have put typos and other such errors to flight.

That said, it still feels like this is the hardest part of things (I know I’ve said that about every stage, but humor me here). Largely, this is because I finally have to let go of the damned story.

So with that end mind, my deadline for finishing this phase and getting things out to last-wave beta readers (that’s the step right before the editor) is the 2nd of April. Okay, it’s actually the first of April, but to avoid its being mistaken for a cruel/terrible prank, I’m saying the second.

On average, I’m looking to tackle a chapter every two days. Today I did the lion’s share of work on the prologue, and I expect to bag that sometime in the afternoon tomorrow. Each of the 24 numbered chapters will follow in sequence. Some may take a touch longer; others may wrap up a bit faster. But regardless, I’m working seven days a week on this till it’s done. If it gets done early, you’ll read about it here. Otherwise, look for periodic thoughts and updates throughout, and look for a Big Giant Update Post on the second of April.

I may be a zillion years late on this novel by my original timeline, but by Crom, it will get done, and the next one will be much faster (and better) for all the hell I’ve put myself through on this one.

On Twenty Years of Scribbling

Today’s the 4th of February. It’s not an exciting day, really, unless maybe it’s your birthday or a holiday where you live. It’s after the Super Bowl and before Valentine’s Day. It is a day to largely be forgotten.

But for me, the 4th of February is a big deal. You see, I have A Thing when it comes to important dates. In my life there have often been bad dates to remember, but there have also been good ones.

The 4th of February could have been either for me. I suppose in some ways its true nature remains to be seen. But thus far it has been good. Here’s why.

On the 4th of February in 1995, I had reached a sort of critical mass. I’d been full to bursting with a story idea that had taken form, slowly, over the fall semester of 1994. I was in the 8th grade, then, and I immersed myself in fictional worlds as a sort of escape from the ineffable realities of being a shy, dumpy, nerdy kid.

I relied on fiction to bolster my resolve when I didn’t have much left to give, or when outside pressure to perform academically loomed like a wave that threatened to drag me out into the night-dark sea. This was the time, it should be noted, when I first began to dance with my depression, though I didn’t realize it until years later.

Fiction was an escape from all that. And it stood to reason that after a time pickled in books, games, comics, and movies, my brain would start to piece together its own stories. All through the fall of ’94, this is what it did. By the start of ’95, I was, it seemed, under a compulsion to write it down.

And so it was that at about 4:30 in the afternoon, on the 4th of February, 1995, I sat down, opened up a file, and started writing. The story that would result is what I call, these days, The Lost Novel. It’s the manuscript that was devoured by my first data loss–a blood sacrifice to the gods of backup in exchange for the hard knowledge that All Storage Media Will Fail.

I’ve said my share previously on my regret that it was lost, and on what I learned from the loss. And I’ve also remarked on how unspeakably horrid what surviving fragments of it I possess really are. Truly, nobody is any less enlightened or entertained for the absence of The Lost Novel.

But there was a good in it, too, and not one to be overlooked. While it’s true that my first real stab at writing was made with the literary equivalent of a plastic spoon and performed with the finesse of a butcher with a chainsaw, it was a beginning.

Twenty years ago, this crazy idea that I could write my own stories had its start. Twenty years. There are few things that have held my interest for that long, and fewer still at which I have had any modicum of success.

I’d hoped to be able to mark this occasion by saying, “So go buy my book, which is not shitty, and which is finished. Here is the link.” But that time is not precisely upon us just yet. Refining and polishing on Oath of Blood is finally getting into full swing after a couple of weeks of severe computer-hell problems (I had to reinstall Windows again on the desktop this weekend, and my DVD drive failed utterly…and the hard drive is making terrible groaning sounds off and on now).

A replacement computer will be on its way soon, and there may be a burp as I transfer my files to that item once it arrives, but overall, I’m plugging dutifully away at Oath, doing my level best to ensure you’ll have a good time when you read it. And of course, I’m backing my shit up with a fanatical zeal that would make Torquemada jealous.

To be fair, I suppose I can’t think of a better way to mark the twentieth anniversary of my first fitful scribbles than to pass the time making more of them—and actively applying the hard lessons they taught me. So—here’s to the last twenty years, and the terrible idea that started them. And here’s to the next twenty, which will actually be full of books for you to read.

A New Update, As Was Foretold

I’m a bit long in posting this update, mostly on account of things I’ll get to a bit further down the page, but I have very good news about Oath of Blood.

As of Wednesday the 14th of January (last week), the rewrite draft of Oath is complete.

Stunned? Disbelieving? Dubious?

Here, take a look for yourself:

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After two or so years of slogging through Rewrite Hell, I’ve finally arrived at a complete text, one which I believe tells the story in the most capable way (or at least the one I’m most capable of). It weighs in at just over 78,000 words. Scrivener ballparks that at around 200-225 paperback pages, but that depends heavily on layout—as well as on the next stage of this process.

I speak, of course, of the (hopefully) last round of polishing, revising, and editing.

Because while the Oath draft is complete, it’s not finished. That is to say, it’s not ready for print just yet. There are still a few patches that don’t satisfy me, and there are several scenes where I still suspect something minor is broken.

In many ways, it’s very much like a first draft in that regard, though it benefits from the lessons learned from all the drafts that came before it (five now in total).

So now that I’ve gotten to a point where I can print it off, stare at it, and say, “Okay, that’s mostly done,” I’m now settling into the task of going over it in detail and making sure all the dings and dents and scratches are taken care of.

Still, it’s a pretty damned good feeling to know the hardest part—the big fixes and the rewriting itself—are generally behind me.

And on a somewhat related note, it’s good I printed it out, because—remember a couple of posts back, when I talked about backing up your shit? Yeah, the husband and I have gotten a double-strength reminder of all the reasons why you should do that in the time since the New Year.

His computer up and died—hard drive and motherboard failure, from what we can tell, one or both perhaps related to an epic electrical storm. Then, just as we’d gotten that sorted out completely, over this past weekend mine shat itself in a spectacular fashion (probably a symptom of its age) and required some severe corrective measures of its own. Lucky for us, we’re diligent about our backups. In my case, everything that was lost when I went to raise my machine from the dead existed in at least four forms, in at least three places.

The backup restoration process is still ongoing, but to my knowledge, I haven’t lost anything—and if I have, it’s nothing vital.

This has been a great test overall of my offsite backup company as well. While restoring almost 100 gigabytes of stuff via download is a time-consuming process, it’s not impossible by any means, and it demonstrates to me the value of the money I pay the company every year. (I gripe, not infrequently, about the modest expense, as my husband well knows.)

Honestly, about the only thing I’ve really had occasion to complain about is the time: time spent downloading backups, time spent reinstalling software, time spent babysitting years and years’ worth of cumulative security updates to Windows.

For the moment, I’m getting things set back up to I can address some work for clients, and I’m also gathering my notes and my thoughts for the next step with Oath—while staving off the desire to start in on something new that’s gnawing at my brain like a rabid squirrel.

With the coming of the New Year, I’ve also got a backlog of things to address on other parts of the site, around the office, and just in my life in general. I’m hoping to get back in the swing of at least a weekly blog post, but we’ll see where things end up. The most important aspect of my creative day right now is Oath, and I’d rather miss a few posts here than slow up the progress there.

An End-of-Yearish Update

I’d meant to make a number of posts over the last several weeks, but, well, here we are. This appears to be all that’s going to come of such plans, despite the fact that I have several such posts written. After all, at least two of them had to do with Christmas, which many folks celebrate, and which I still enjoy with my relatives despite some philosophical differences about the particulars.

Ah well. I’ll revisit them next year, maybe, and we’ll see if I still like them (the posts, not the relatives).

I’ve been busy lately, as members of my social media horde can attest. Mostly this has to do with wrapping up the rewrite of Oath of Blood, which has been limping along for an unholy age. I started the first draft sometime in August of 2012 or so, and figured I would be done cleaning it up by December of that year. Then I assumed it would be good enough that I wouldn’t have to do all that many revisions.

Well, you know what they say about when you assume.

So here we are, two years later, and things are at last rolling along. Initially I thought I might get done by the end of this December, and I will actually be very close to done at that point. But it’s looking like the last hurrah for the rewrite draft will be January instead, sometime in the first week or so. Which—I’ll take it, even though I’m frustrated about not sticking closer to my estimate.

But enough of that. You’d probably like to see numbers, especially if you’ve been following the revisions all these many, many months.

Right now, things are sitting at about 80,000 words.

When I wrote the very first rough, ugly draft of Oath, it was barely 25k, and was more or less a fancy outline—or a badly paced novella; take your pick. It grew to 50k in the first real draft and hovered around there for a long while. How it got so big in the rewrite process I couldn’t actually tell you. It just seemed to come together that way as I fleshed out the underdeveloped parts and addressed problems in the pacing.

The weird part, though, is that I began Oath shooting for 40-60k because I was convinced I couldn’twrite a longer work, much less one that might, by the end of it, come close to rubbing elbows with 100,000 words. Yet now, looking at the story as it has shaped up, I don’t believe I could cut it down again. (But again, we’ll see what the editor says.)

Is that how book series spiral wildly out of control, I wonder? Just—they grow on you, as you come to know the people and the places better? It makes me rethink all the frowning I used to do at Robert Jordan (despite his being nice enough to answer a letter of mine way back in high school).

But there you have it. On average, I’m putting about a chapter to bed per day, when I have a good day. Thankfully, that’s been most days since I got the last of the knots ironed out. But there are some bad days (anxiety wedded to clinical depression is, and remains, a real bitch), and there is the matter of The Holidays, which I’d smugly assumed would have no influence whatsoever on my ability to work—but which have now sucked away a sizable amount of time. Again, you know what they say.

So I’m looking to wrap all this up in early January. After that, I’ll be going back through the manuscript and polishing like mad, getting it to the point where I’m incapable of seeing any more problems with it. Thoroughly problem-blind, I will then be running it past a handful of trusted readers, some of them fellow writers, and others brave souls who have been willing to subject themselves to Oath since it got started. I’m imagining that, between us, we will probably wrap up bashing on the thing in the spring.

At that point, it’s back to the editor. Once that’s dealt with, I’ll see what changes need to be made, then make them, and then start the process of finishing up design, layouts, and formatting. I’m guessing that will take us into the summer, but we’ll see. Could be a bit faster. Could be a bit slower.

After that? Well, that feels like an age from now, but suffice it to say I’ll have plenty to keep me busy once I kick Oath out the door and into your lives. I’ve got another manuscript sitting on the desk, waiting for an overhaul, a detailed outline for a couple more (including the sequel to Oath), and some ideas for short fiction sitting in the “to-do” box. I’ve also got some blog posts, reviews, and the like on backlog, and I think (or at least hope) that you’ll enjoy them.

In the meantime, I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with Revisions Hell, and it doesn’t appear to be an oncoming train. Now to just keep on pushing.

But before I go, I feel obliged to make some remarks, as people do at the end of the year.

For all of you who have gone to bat for me, supported me in other ways, and generally been cool people this year, I thank you with all my heart (or spleen, or whichever part pleases you most). We get through this life, in large part, due to the help and generosity of other people, and I have in no small way been the recipient of such.

For those of you who do some variety of celebrating this time of year, may you have a good one, whatever it may be, and for those who don’t, may you have a good wintertime in general, full of enjoyable times and short on drama and stress. As for me, it’s back to work. I’ll peek my head out again soon when I have a heroic-looking stack of manuscript pages to show you.

Back Up Your Shit

I can still remember—vividly—the first time I lost something vital to a data loss. It was a weekend morning in late 1995 or early 1996, and I sat myself down at the family’s Macintosh Performa 560 to work on a piece of fantasy fiction that I was certain would be The Next Big Thing. It wasn’t, nor will it ever be, as any adult who’s seen it can tell you, but that’s not the point. The point is this: I popped my trusty writing floppy, the same one I’d been using since 1993, into the drive—and it wouldn’t read.

Corrupted, the Mac told me.

I shook my head in disbelief, muttered the denial that was rapidly taking hold in my brain. I ejected and tried again. And again. And again. But I got the same error every time. My floppy was toast, and my files had vanished.

It was all gone.

Some of it I didn’t care too much about at the time: the several homework assignments, the emails and forum posts I’d saved from a Robert Jordan discussion group I was part of at the time, files I’d downloaded here and there, stuff like that. It was a bummer, but not world-ending. (Although, truth be told, now I’d like to see them.)

But there was stuff I did feel the loss of—and painfully so:

An email from Raymond E. Feist, who had been kind enough to answer my stupid teenager questions and send me an explanation of some things about Midkemia and the Riftwar, along with some general encouragement as a writer. It was probably copy-pasta from a FAQ file he kept for such purposes, but to me at the time it was magical and priceless: my first brush with a Real-Live Writer whose work I enjoyed and whose career I had wistful dreams of, in some small ways, emulating.

My journal, which I’d been keeping for two years on that disk, and into which went cosmic quantities of angst and shitty poetry, but also some personal thoughts and insights about life and adolescence, all unique to me.

And biggest of all: a full hundred pages of manuscript, about half of the novel I imagined would be my magnum opus, on which I’d been laboring for well over a year.

All gone. Forever.

To say I was upset would be an understatement. I was crushed. I felt hopeless and betrayed. But mostly, I felt stupid and angry. And being a hothead, I went out in the backyard and beat a fencepost with a shovel until my parents started worrying that somebody would call the cops.

Then I cried.

The thing is, even as I raged at the stupid fucking floppy disk, I knew it was my fault. Paranoid as I was in that dumbass teenage way, I hadn’t backed up my shit on the hard drive for fear my parents would snoop, even though they never did. I hadn’t even saved it to another floppy. I was a colossal, galactic dumbass, and it’s not like I hadn’t been taught that floppies were fallible, temporary things. Like milk, meat, and politicians, they’re destined to go bad. It’s only a matter of when.

Luckily, I got some of my files back through an accidental backup. I had friends and relatives who’d wanted to read parts of my fiction and poetry, and I had teachers who had held onto some of my work for school. My mom had saved some things, as had my dad, and slowly a collection of hardcopies began to accrete, precious relics on paper, from which I made new files that I then backed up with religious zeal. I still have these today.

But some of it was really gone forever, like the journal and the email from Ray Feist, and most of the original manuscript to my shitty fantasy novel. I was able to recover the prologue and the first several chapters, but everything from Chapter 4 to the midpoint around Chapter 12 or so was lost.

I never did finish it, either, though I made stabs at it well into high school.

In terms of value to the literary world, it’s no big loss. The midpoint crisis involved magical hang gliders, for God’s sake, so I don’t think the planet is really missing out. But the fact remains that those shitty scenes and chapters were my shitty scenes and chapters. They were my first stabs at writing a real book, even if it was a pile of garbage.

And there was only ever one copy of those shitty chapters, and when it was lost, that was it. And now, almost twenty years on, I want to look at them again, to see what the good in them was as well as the bad, and to reflect on how I’ve grown and where I still need to work at things.

But I can’t.

In my daydreams sometimes, I imagine my mom will call me and say she found a box of my old floppies heretofore unremembered, and what should she do with them? In that daydream, I drive over to her house and I discover that they’re my long-lost shit, somehow recoverable, somehow stillthere. And I’ll get to reconnect with those lost relics, some remembered and some forgotten, and to have my data-self, such as it is, be whole again.

I know that won’t happen, because I took all my stuff to college with me in 1999, and the last of my oldest floppies went sometime in 2001 after I transferred everything on them to the first of many CD-Rs, versions of which exist today, in multiple places, nested like matryoshka dolls, one inside the other. Mom never had any of it. She has a number of my later backups, which I’ve entrusted to her because she has the soul of an archivist. But what she doesn’t have is my oldest shit, the shit I kept to myself and shared with no one else. Still, I like to dream of it.

Of course, you may wonder: Why am I telling you all this sappy shit? You’d rather know how the rewrites are coming on Oath, or when I’m going to review another movie, or what’s up on the Sofa.

Well, it’s related.

Last night I was putting in my time on Oath, and it came time to add in and vet some new material. So I dove into my working directory to pull up those chapters and look them over.

Wouldn’t you know: I couldn’t find them.  Anywhere.

I checked the desktop, the laptop, the several cloud backups, the DVD-Rs, the external hard disk, my stack of obsessively hoarded hard copies. Nothing.

I didn’t go out and beat a fencepost with a shovel, but I did travel back through time mentally and emotionally to that winter morning when my floppy disk died. And I sat at the desk, cigarette pinched between tight, thin lips, wondering what the fuck I was going to do.

The files in question were several thousand words each, and though I’d beat on them for weeks polishing them up before I shelved them for later editing, my memories of them were more than a little hazy. And I was going to have to recreate them, apparently from whole cloth. Panic washed over me—and then: a hopeful glimmer of a memory.

I’d written those files on my old laptop last year, a lumbering IBM ThinkPad that I’d had since the ass-end of high school and which I still used, at that time, as an occasional mobile workhorse. And if I’d written it there, then I would have saved it to a floppy disk to transfer it to the desktop. I was pretty sure I had transferred everything months ago before the ThinkPad met its end, but it was worth a look.

So I dove into my giant tub of outdated computer bits and came up with a box of 3.5” floppies and a USB floppy drive. After a few minutes of sorting through the box (boot disk, drivers, software, etc.) I found the disks I’d used for shuttling files. I popped them in and—they read.

And lo and behold: there were the missing files.

On a stupid fucking floppy disk.

That floppy was the only place they were. The single place in the universe where I’d saved them. Why I wasn’t more fastidious about those files in particular I couldn’t tell you. Probably I thought to myself lazily, Eh, I’ll get them tomorrow, and they never got done.

This time, I put the blame where it belonged: on me. I was a fucking dumbass, and I hadn’t made certain that everything made the jump. Currently, those files are where they need to be in all my various backup spots, and right now the printer is churning out hard copies. But it might not have gone that way.

And that would have been a personal catastrophe because—do you know what those files were?

They were the end of the book.

So the moral of the story is this: Back up your shit—or else.

All storage media are finite. All of them will fail. Put your shit in multiple places, and keep it up to date, even if at this moment you think it’s silly or insignificant or probably isn’t going to make it into the manuscript or whatever.

Keep old things. Keep stupid things. Keep sentimental things. This is especially true if what you have is the only copy there is on Planet Earth, the only one there will ever be. When it goes—and it will go—then it’s gone. And you might wake up some morning feeling nostalgic, or sit down to work some evening, and realize you need to see it again, but you can’t.

And if you’ve got stuff on old media formats, find ways to get it off. 5.25” floppies? Data cassettes? Old hard drives? Something else? Get it off. Get it converted. Get it in your current backup. That goes for other things like audio and video, too—especially if it’s rare or one-of-a-kind. If you don’t think you can hack the technical side of it, there are companies that will do it for you in exchange for your cash, and you may have friends or acquaintances who will do it for free or for beer or something.

As for me, I’m a pretty obsessive backer-upper, and have been for years, but clearly I’ve got holes in my system, and something very important almost slipped through. I’m taking some steps now to change that, and I might post about them here from time to time.

As for Oath, there’s still some work to be done, so keep checking back. Things are moving.

And as for the floppy disk—I think I’ll keep it around to remind me.

Save vs. Nostalgia: My First Can of Surge in 12 Years

It’s a Monday afternoon in late September, and the day is turning out to be, in most regards, unexceptional by Central Texas standards. The weather has that sweltering, oppressive quality to it—clear and potent sunshine, cloying humidity, and temperatures utterly out of joint with the miasma of artificial pumpkin product slowly creeping over the social landscape.

And me? I’m working, feet propped up on the coffee table in the breeze of a box fan, sitting on the sofa transcribing my editorial commentary from a manuscript hardcopy onto my laptop. Kane, my boycat, has insinuated himself between my right arm and my keyboard, there to nap in the least convenient way possible. My girlcat, Agnes, supervises imperiously from a short stack of towels on the adjacent cushion. A few lingering cicadas buzz in the trees out back. Redneck battlewagons with giant exhaust pipes blare through the intersection, belching black smoke into cloudless blue skies. Business as usual in the mid-afternoon.

At least, that is, until it finally happens.

The telltale thunk-scrape of a box on concrete at the door catches my attention. I look up from my work, and the cats prick up their ears. Then, to my right, the wordless passage of a brown-uniformed deliveryman by the window tells me all I need to know. My Amazon order has arrived.

My case of Surge is here.


Surge: the 90s cult soda in a puke green can that heralded, in many ways, the energy drink boom but which vanished from the market too early to take advantage of it.

Surge: that horrible-wonderful electric nectar that looks like the love child of glow-stick juice and whatever mutated the Ninja Turtles.

Surge: nostalgia in a can, now available directly—and exclusively—from Amazon. Well, except when it’s sold out, like it has been almost the entire week since its official re-release.

Back from its exile, it now sits on my doorstep, waiting to be rediscovered.

I disentangle myself from Kane almost immediately and retrieve the box from outside. Soon enough, the shrink-wrapped pack of twelve cans, their glaring green and red logos blazing beneath the cloudy plastic, emerge. I feel a rush of excitement and anticipation. The cats begin squabbling over the empty box, but I don’t bother to scold them this time, even when Kane bites Agnes on the rump and she slaps him across the face with an audible pop. Instead, I head around the corner to the kitchen to admire—and evaluate—my first can of Surge in more than a dozen years.

The can itself stands taller than its previous incarnation—a big 16-ounce affair like you often see with energy drinks and, more traditionally, shitty beer. The label copy has changed a bit, too, adding bits of nutritional data that weren’t mandatory before and refiguring itself as a “citrus-flavored soda” rather than a “fully loaded citrus soda.” Are the contents any different, though? I crack open the room-temperature can and proceed to find out.

Rather immediately, the overpowering and distinctive “citrus” aroma assails my nose, and I am overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia. They say smell triggers memories more powerfully than most things, and in this case, that seems to be true. I find myself, if only for a brief instant, transported back to the high school cafeteria on a day in the spring of 1997, when Coca-Cola sent their big green cars and shapely promo babes to hand out free Surge on campus.

If that seems odd now, that’s understandable. At the time, though, my school seemed to have some kind of dirty deal with Coke, who sponsored various things around the school and, apparently, received in exchange permission to market their wares to the student body. There were Coke machines in the cafeteria and elsewhere—and, on that particular day, there were also the Surge babes.

They swooped in, laden with freebies, and anyone who asked got two cans for free. This went on for several days, and, as you might expect, the drink started appearing in the vending machines soon after the fact. Many of us started drinking it after that—and for me, it became a lunchtime and late night ritual, a key material component of writing, internet surfing, and gaming. And for good reason, too: it was sweeter and more potent than Mountain Dew. The cans looked cooler. People whom I enjoyed annoying were disgusted by its electric green color. Truly, it was a worthy beverage, the distilled essence of teenage geekery.

In my kitchen in 2014, I open up the pantry and pull down a small glass tumbler. The liquid in this new can runs clear and green, like some unholy atomic ichor—a thing that should not be. I smile with remembrance. That much, too, is still there, and still appeals to me more than Mountain Dew’s cloudy chartreuse hues.

Finally, then, the last test: I take a sip, and I know immediately that the formula hasn’t changed. Even after all this time, I recognize it, and I’m reminded of the rumble of the cantankerous engine of my old 1987 Dodge RamCharger, the smell of the (then) decade-old interior, the exhilaration of personal freedom, tasted for the first time.

The dawn of Surge roughly coincided with my getting my driver’s license. It was a mythical time for me: a summer of rock-bottom gas prices the like of which have not been equaled since, it was also the first time in my life that I was permitted to venture out and make certain financial and recreational decisions on my own.

And considering that I was just as much a nerd then as I am now, mostly this involved video games, heavy metal albums, books and cartoons, and my first forays into tabletop gaming. Surge was a favorite of mine in those early explorations of greater nerdom, and many were the cans that were conquered in the midst of such pursuits.

I drink a bit more. The high sugar content starts to hit my system, and I feel the powerful and deceptive charge that only high-fructose corn syrup can impart. It’s been out of my regular diet for years now, since 2000 or 2001, and it’s a curious feeling, and pretty addicting. I’m struck with a deep desire for Taco Bell, too, to complement the taste.

By the gods, I reflect. No wonder I gained so much weight in high school.

Later in the evening, my husband Ryan comes in from work, and we reflect on our joint nostalgia over cans of the syrupy green beverage. We recall how we chugged it like water during late-night Palladium Robotech sessions on AOL, back when we were still just two high school kids on opposite ends of the country who (sort of) tolerated one another because we both liked heavy metal, giant robots, and Beavis and Butthead.

Then, as adults are wont to do, we finally put booze in it—something we’ve wanted to try for years.

It’s surprisingly good. Just as good, to my tastes, as a Vodka Red Bull. Not as good as a quality Scotch or Japanese whiskey, no, but enjoyable in that guilty, stupid, I-just-ate-a-whole-pizza-by-myself kind of way.

And after a while, I also start to notice the less pleasant effects: the crash that comes when the HFCS is out of my system, the nasty film that quickly develops on my teeth, the subtle ache in some of my dental work. I start to wonder how I drank this stuff years ago, and a possibly profound comment about the fleeting resilience of youth knocks around in my head like a steel ball, but quickly slides into the booze and disappears.

“I don’t think I’m going to make this an everyday thing,” I finally admit to Ryan after a bit.

“Yeah,” he agrees with me.

“I guess if they make a Diet Surge,” I say, rolling the empty can between my palms. “I could do that. I used to dig Vault Zero. What do you think?”

“Yeah, that could be good,” he tells me, and settles back into a YouTube video.

I start into a second can, but I only get halfway through before I just can’t stomach it anymore. I put the unfinished can in the refrigerator and grab a glass of water. Like the accompanying Taco Bell I ultimately couldn’t resist, it’s palatable and even pleasant in small doses—a nice trip down memory lane—but taken beyond that, it quickly runs to miserable excess.

In its 12-year exile, there’s really nothing about Surge that has changed. It’s still the same radioactive green canned hyperactivity that it was in the 90s. It still tastes like it’s made from dragon tears distilled in the Holy Grail and stirred with Excalibur itself. It tastes like PlayStation and modem noise and saving throws. It goes really well with Taco Bell.

No, Surge hasn’t changed, except that now it comes from The Internet in sixteen-ounce doses.

Me, though? I’ve changed a lot, it seems. A great deal has happened since the last time I had a Surge, which was in 2001, before I left for Japan. I came back in 2002 fifty pounds lighter, with a burgeoning smoking habit and a taste for Suntory whiskey. And Surge, meanwhile, had begun its long exile, not to return to my tastebuds until now. Life rolled on in the interim, taking me down a different and less sugary road.

Tasting it again a dozen-plus years on, I’d say Surge is one of those things best enjoyed only when the mood is right and the desire to tap into the good things of my high school days is strong. Would I change my tune if there were a diet version? It’s possible—since the main turn-offs for me are the immiserating effects of all that high-fructose corn syrup.

For now, Surge is a memory best revisited, like in-laws and old acquaintances grown estranged, in moderation: long enough to experience the good things, but briefly enough to avoid the bullshit.

Thoughts on Starting College

Fifteen years ago today, the dorms opened at the University of Texas at Austin for the Fall 1999 semester. Sometime that morning, I threw my crap in my car and drove the two hours from home to campus. I was 18 and fresh out of high school.

Today, I don’t really remember what the me of 1999 imagined she would be doing in 2014. I was more interested in playing video games and checking out the unlimited pizza in the cafeteria, some of which is still, no doubt, embedded in my waistline. Still, I’m feeling nostalgic today and I’m spending way too much time reflecting on what advice I would give that younger version of me if I had the chance.

But, of course, I’m not a time traveler, so the best I can do is blast those thoughts off into the intertubes at large and hope they find their way to someone who will find them useful.

Is that you or somebody you know? If so, read on, and I hope it helps a little.

Dear College Freshman From the Internet,

Congratulations on escaping from high school. Once, long ago, when people still got online by dialing through a land line, I did something similar to what you’re doing now. Your life’s probably completely different from mine back then, but even so, some things never change. One of those things is being nervous or unsure about this crazy-ass thing you just decided to do with your life.

So for what it’s worth, if you’re starting out this month as a brand new freshman, and if you’re trying to get all your bills and your books and your beliefs in order, here’s some free advice from an old hand. As with all such advice, it’s worth perhaps precisely what you paid for it, so take it with a grain of salt and, most of all, enjoy what lies ahead of you.

Chill out.

Deal with today—today. Tomorrow you can address tomorrow. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan ahead, but it does mean you should concern yourself only with the things you can control, when are where you can actually control them. Worry isn’t a time machine, so take a breath, look at what you can do right now, and deal with that. Rinse and repeat. Little by little, you’ll get things done.

Roll with the punches.

Life’s probably not going to turn out exactly like you expect. It may be similar, or it may be completely different, but your playbook is just an outline. Like all outlines, it’s not carved in stone. It’s an idea. A plan. A work in progress. Revise as necessary. This is not a crime or a sign of failure.

Buy your books, do your homework, and go to class.

Being prepared and showing up is the lion’s share of success in a college class. You’re not going to be constantly reminded to take care of things like you may have been in high school, and even though the professor may not take roll or directly penalize you for playing hooky, you’ll pay for it in grades. I’m serious. The only classes I ever failed were the ones I thought I could skip.

Make a budget and keep it.

As a brand new adult, you now have the ability to buy whatever you want, whenever you want it, with the possible legal exception of alcohol. This is pretty awesome. But you will also need to have money for necessities—oh, and emergencies, too, which you can never really predict, and which will bite off a sizable chunk of your ass if you’re not at least somewhat prepared to handle them. If you haven’t learned how to budget yet, start today. You won’t be perfect at it at first, but you’ll be better off than you would be flying by the seat of your financial pants—which brings me to my next point.

Stay the hell away from credit cards.

Credit card companies are not your friends. They view you as a source of revenue, and they will offer you all kinds of incentives to sign up for their “services,” knowing full well that you’ll probably overspend and end up paying them interest for years. You’ll probably tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just use it for emergencies,” but if you’re anything like me, you’ll eventually manage to convince yourself that a bitchin’ leather jacket and a new video game and a shitpile of pizza constitutes an “emergency.” Don’t do it. You’ll be paying interest on those purchases long after you’ve graduated, and I don’t care how good the pizza is—it’s not that good.

Stay the hell away from private student loans.

I’d say to stay away from all student loans, but that wasn’t really possible even fifteen years ago, to say nothing of today. Still, keep your distance from private loans. It may seem like a great thing at first glance, but below the surface, that beautiful financial mermaid is really more like the tooth-encrusted, shark-jawed asshole of an angry elder god, and once you’re in its clutches, it’s damned hard to get loose. I know from experience: I will be paying on my private loans, to the non-deferrable, non-dischargeable tune of $200 a month, until 2030. By then, I will almost be 50, and I will have paid more in interest than I borrowed. Don’t do it. That way lies only suffering.

Apply for scholarships.

Student loans and grants aren’t the only way to get money for school. Keep an eye out for legitimate scholarships (not contests or giveaways masquerading as scholarships) and apply for them whenever you get the chance. You’d be surprised what you might qualify for. I mean, I got an entire year of study abroad expenses paid for just by virtue of filling out the paperwork correctly, politely, and on time. And these don’t have to be huge scholarships, either. Little awards add up. Do the legwork, put in the time, and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Go get help if you run into problems.

This applies to class for sure (your university or college is likely to have a tutoring center that is free to you, and you should use it), but it also applies to the other stuff you’re learning to do. Take care of your body, and in the name of whatever you value and/or worship, take care of your brain. You are a brand new, Level 1 Adult. All this stuff is new. You may not know to handle it yet, and that is normal. If life kicks your ass, go get some help so you can bounce back stronger.

Do what you love, and do it for your own reasons.

You know all those articles about the best college majors for making money? Wipe your ass with them and throw them away. The economy is a fickle beast, and what rakes in the money today might not tomorrow, and sometimes there’s no predicting that. If you want to study something because you love it, go for it. Pursue it with everything you’ve got—but don’t do it just because somebody promised you delicious cake at the end of four years.

Try new stuff.

Your experiences have probably been pretty limited up to now, and there’s a whole goddamned world of stuff you’ve never heard of, much less tried. Take a class you don’t need, make new friends, go check out a group or a club for something you’ve always wondered about but never had the chance to investigate. Hell, go try a food you’ve never tried before. You never know what you’ll stumble onto that will resonate with you. And if you try something and you don’t like it—well, so what? You tried it, which is a hell of a lot more than most people do.

Finally, take all advice with a grain of salt.

Yes, that includes my advice. People are going to tell you a bunch of shit they think is helpful. Maybe it will be, and maybe it won’t. Mostly, we old farts are just excited for you and hope you can avoid some of the mistakes we made. Still, the power to decide what you do with your life is yours, so don’t go handing that off to someone else, no matter who they are or what they promise you. Keep it close to you like a treasure, and weigh any suggestions carefully before you act on them. You’re the one who has to look at you in the mirror every morning, so if you can’t live with a choice someone tells you to make, don’t do it. Make the choice you can live with.

Most of all, though, have a badass time at college. May your books be cheap, may the parking be plentiful, and may the curve be ever in your favor.

Oh, and P.S.: Keep your bottled beverages away from your laptop!