InstaGone

Nine weeks ago I was kicked off Instagram.

“Kicked off?”, you might ask. “Wow, considering the type of behavior that’s permitted on Instagram, you must have done something really horrible to get yourself banned. What was it?”

The answer? Nobody knows. And Instagram/Facebook is not talking. All I know is that I somehow twice ran afoul of Instagram’s flawed “suspicious activity” detection algorithm within the span of two months. I managed to get my account restored the first time, but now when I try to log in, all I get is a message stating that my account was deactivated for violating their terms of service.

Umm, what violation? All I did was post photography pics and like photography pics. I was dumbfounded.

So I clicked on the link they provide if you think your account was deactivated by mistake. From there I filled out a form and then received the following automated email from some weird facebook address (everything in this process is automated, which is the crux of the problem):

Hi,
Thanks for contacting us. Before we can help, we need you to confirm that you own this account. Please reply to this message and send us a photo of yourself holding a hand-written copy of the code below:

(code withheld for privacy)

Please make sure that the photo you send:

– Includes the above code hand-written on a clean sheet of paper, followed by your full name and username
– Includes both your hand that’s holding the sheet of paper and your entire face
– Is well-lit, and is not too small, dark or blurry
– Is attached to your reply as a JPEG file

What a ridiculous hoop to have to jump through, but what choice did I have? I was angry and I let it show in this admittedly testy reply that I sent along with the silly photo they demanded:

This is the second time in the last two months that your faulty algorithm has flagged my perfectly normal activity as “suspicious.” In both cases, all I did was access my account from my laptop and like a few posts, and that was enough to get my account frozen, only this time you took it a step further by accusing me of violating your terms of service and suspending my account. I would LOVE to know how I violated your terms of service–please explain that to me. In the meantime, the ridiculous photo I was required to take in order to regain access to my account is attached. This is the last time I will jump through these hoops to retain my account. If you fail to fix your flawed algorithm and this happens again, I will be done with instagram–and maybe facebook, too.

Four days passed without hearing anything, but it gave me time to cool down, and I decided to follow up with what I felt was a more diplomatic message:

I am still waiting for you to correct your error and restore my account. I know my last email was a bit testy, but I am understandably upset that this has now happened to me twice in the last two months, with this time being even worse because I somehow ran afoul of your algorithm’s terms-of-service-violation detector. This makes absolutely no sense to me because I have one of the most mundane accounts on Instagram. All I do is post pictures from my photography hobby and ‘like’ pictures from other photographers–that’s it. I don’t engage with anybody, I don’t post needy influencer videos trolling for follows, and I don’t post (or like) opinions about anything. My account is strictly about photography and nothing else. And I certainly haven’t flooded the service–in 5.5 years I have posted fewer than 500 photos–that’s an average of 7 to 8 posts per month–some people post that much per hour. So I really don’t understand why I was flagged and I would really like it explained to me. Thank you.

Another eleven days passed without a single word from Instagram/Facebook. Although I no longer really cared whether I got my account back, it occurred to me that there are links from my web site that are now broken, and that the “About the Author” page in my physical books directs readers to my Instagram account, which now does not exist. So I followed up with another message:

It has now been over two weeks and I still do not have a resolution or an explanation as to what term of service I could possibly have violated. As I alluded to in my previous emails, anyone who spends 5 minutes looking at my account will see one of the most mundane, low-use accounts on Instagram, with ZERO suspicious activity.

But it’s not just about my Instagram account. You are damaging my brand as a published author. I have physical books out there pointing to my Instagram account on the “About the Author” pages. Now any readers visiting my account are getting a broken link. If you refuse to restore my account, or worse yet, if you give my Instagram ID to somebody else so that my readers are directed to a stranger’s account that I have no affiliation with, you will do further damage to my brand. Please fix this.

Another two weeks passed. Still nothing, which prompted the following terse message:

It has now been more than a month since I sent my photo and I still have not received any response. Is anyone even looking into this?

Another 19 days passed with no response from Facebook/Instagram, so I resorted to a twitter thread. I knew this was pointless because neither Facebook nor Instagram has a customer support account on twitter (big surprise), but what did I have to lose? So I repeatedly tagged every related account I could think of. (Side note: whenever you tag Instagram with a complaint, you get spammed by multiple accounts claiming they know somebody who can get your account reactivated, a clear indication that the accidental banning issue is widespread if scammers have latched onto it.)

Twitter Thread
[Dec 19]
It has been 7 weeks since @instagram deactivated my account for some phantom violation of their terms of service. I jumped through the hoops @Facebook demanded (pic of myself holding paper) to get it restored but they never even had the decency to respond. @InstagramComms @Meta

As I repeatedly tried to explain to @facebook in followup messages, anyone who spends 5 minutes with my @instagram account would find one of the most mundane accounts on the entire platform. All I do is post/like photography pics. The idea that I violated anything is laughable.

It was the 2nd time I had run afoul of @instagram’s flawed ‘suspicious activity’ algorithm–I was able to get my account restored the 1st time. In both cases, my apparent crime was accessing my account via my laptop and liking a few pics. @Facebook doesn’t care. @InstagramComms

The only reason I even want my @instagram account back at this point is so links from my website/books are not broken. Even if I manage to get it back, I’ll probably never again interact with it for fear of once again running afoul of @facebook’s ‘suspicious activity’ algorithm.

Honestly, @instagram is no longer a good platform for photographers anyway since they @facebook-ified it. I’m seeking an alternative to share my photography, but it would still be nice to have an active insta account so that my already sold books aren’t pointing to a dead page.

The fact that neither @instagram nor @facebook have a customer service/support account, nor any real way to contact them, shows how few craps they give for their users. So I am fully aware that this thread was just spitting into the wind, but it felt good to vent anyway. /fin

[Dec 28]
Addendum: I’ve resorted to filling out the “account was deactivated by mistake” form every few days until either @instagram or @Facebook finally has the decency to respond. I won’t hold my breath. @InstagramComms @Meta @MetaNewsroom

I’ve done the last item above about a dozen times now, but I’ve never again received the automated email like I did the first time I filled out the form, which leads me to believe that my ID was flagged from any further communication. So I’ve come to the realization that I’m never getting my account back, and that it was never even under consideration, which led to the following final kiss-off message:

No response in well over two months now. I’m beginning to think that my initial email in which I expressed justified anger got me thrown into some sort of Instagram jail where any attempt at further communication is automatically ignored. Petty and childish, but not surprising. Have a nice day.

And that’s that. I’m not broken up about not being on Instagram anymore–as I mentioned in my twitter thread, Instagram is no longer a good outlet for photographers anyway since they Facebookified the platform–but I am irritated that my books are now pointing readers to a dead account (or one that may be given to somebody else at some point). Facebook/Instagram doesn’t care. They don’t have to. When you have a monopoly, you’re free to treat your consumers like garbage because it has zero impact on your bottom line. It’s no wonder that there’s a growing movement in Congress to break up big tech firms like Facebook.

I will probably never know why I was banned from Instagram. I don’t even think Instagram knows. It was a decision made by a poorly-written algorithm, not a human being.

The moral of the story: If your Instagram account gets deactivated for some phantom violation of their terms of service, don’t even bother trying to get it back. You won’t. No amount of messages, tweets, filled-out forms, or silly photos of yourself with your name and info on a piece of paper will make a difference. You’re essentially calling a disconnected phone number–there’s nobody listening on the other end.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Total eclipse. Aurora, Oregon - August 21, 2017

Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is
-Bruce Springsteen

The day of the eclipse has arrived: August 21, 2017. You’ve planned all year for this rare celestial event, organizing an entire two-week trip to the American Northwest around it. Your bus, which was originally scheduled to leave Portland, Oregon for the Willamette Valley at seven in the morning is now leaving at 5:30 to account for the massive influx of eclipse traffic in the area, so you awake in your Portland hotel room around 3:45 and walk through the city in the cold, dark morning to the pickup location.

Once on the highway you quickly discover that the organizers’ fears were well founded as you find yourself stuck in gridlocked traffic, and you’re thankful that the tour operator chose to alter the itinerary from Salem to Aurora, half the distance from Portland. The trade-off is that you’ll only see 30 seconds of eclipse totality rather than 90 seconds, but you figure that 30 seconds is better than completely missing it while stuck inside a bus on the road.

It takes the bus 90 minutes to drive 22 miles but you finally reach your destination: Aurora Colony Vineyards, a quiet, idyllic place for viewing an eclipse. You have a couple of hours to kill before it begins. In the meantime, your tour operator offers your group a chance to hop back on the bus and drive further south to a school, where you would be able to see 60 seconds of totality instead of 30. Most of the group chooses this option, but you and a few others elect to eschew further time on the road in favor of remaining behind to relax and view the eclipse in the peace and tranquility of the vineyard.

So you grab a blanket and hike up into the vines, scoping out a nice private location to sit and watch.

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The eclipse begins and you don your viewing glasses.

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For a while not much has changed. You can see the moon beginning to cover the sun through the glasses, but when you remove the glasses the sky appears as bright as usual–and will remain so for roughly an hour. The moon’s path across the sun is slow, so you alternate between removing your glasses to take some photos and putting the glasses back on to check the status of the eclipse.

You watch in wonder as a hot air balloon circles the sun, partially jealous of the prime location of its passengers, but also thinking, “They better not block my view.” You’re reminded of the myth of Icarus.

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You take some time to call your wife back home in New Jersey while you wait for the ultimate show. Even with the sun half covered there’s not a noticeable difference in the level of daylight.

Then it starts to get cooler. The farm animals know something is up. They hang out at the barn door, not sure what to make of this, afraid to venture too far from safety. Dogs in the area start barking like crazy.

The air grows even colder and you throw on your jacket as the wind kicks up. The sky begins to darken as if the day is retiring to an early dusk. Mount Hood in the distance has become much more visible in the amber hue of the diminishing light.

Still the air grows colder and it’s suddenly quiet, eerily so. The dogs have stopped barking, the birds no longer chirp. You keep alternating between ‘glasses on’ and ‘glasses off’ as the eclipse approaches totality.

Then it happens.

The others nearby start oohing and ahhing. At first you’re afraid to remove your glasses because of the horror stories you’ve been told about eye damage, despite knowing that it’s safe to remove them during totality. So you glance at other people to make sure their glasses are off and then you throw yours to the ground as you rise to your feet.

You stare awestruck at something out of a science fiction film: a dark circle surrounded by a ring of purple fire, a glowing white diamond at its edge, all cast against a black sky. You are witnessing a total solar eclipse.

Total eclipse. Aurora, Oregon - August 21, 2017

You zoom in with your camera and snap a few quick photos that you know will never do justice to what your eyes are seeing. You let the camera drop to your side, your eyes unable to peel themselves away from the majesty of totality. It’s not until you hear others mention the stars that you finally turn away from the sun and view the rest of the sky, now sprinkled with glowing balls of light at 10:18 in the morning. The hilly rows of vines stretch into the distance under a starry sky.

Then it’s over. All of this has happened in less than 30 seconds.

The diamond at the edge of the eclipsed sun grows brighter and you know it’s time to put your glasses back on. Light returns to the sky almost instantly–but it’s not daylight–instead you’re faced with a strange twilight. You remove the glasses and turn your sights away from the sun and toward the countryside, which now seems to be bathed in a neon glow.

You snap some more photos then sit back and take it all in. You still can’t believe what you just saw and you find yourself wishing for more, somewhat regretting not traveling further south to experience more totality, but also grateful for being among the privileged few humans on Earth to have witnessed a total eclipse of the sun. You wonder what the ancients must have thought when they saw such an event. Did they think the world was ending? That a deity was coming down to strike vengeance upon the wicked?

Gradually, full daylight returns to the valley. You pack up your picnic spread and head back to the winery. The moon will continue to eclipse the sun for another hour or so before it moves away and resumes its eternal dance with the Earth, but the show is essentially over. The phase of totality now feels as if it happened in another life to another version of yourself. Nevertheless, you are hooked. You know that you’ll be chasing the next total eclipse to hit North America in 2024, and perhaps others around the world in the years beyond, just to get that feeling again, that indescribable sensation of existing among the cosmos, if only for a moment.

Haiku of the Day

We had a little bit of snow today and my wife took this picture of the bamboo bench on our porch. When her sister commented that there is a haiku in there somewhere, I was inspired to whip up this one. The description may not exactly match the photo, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration…

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Waning autumn days;
bamboo bench buried beneath
freshly fallen snow.

Story Cartel and the Search for Reviews

cover3bOne of the biggest struggles for an indie author is getting people to review your books on Amazon and other book retailers (I even have trouble getting people I know personally, and who have given my novel extremely positive feedback, to leave reviews). Without reviews (positive, negative, or indifferent), it’s nearly impossible to get strangers interested in your book because it gets lost in an endless sea of unreviewed, self-published books available to the masses.

As indie authors, we take steps to try and remedy this situation: launching giveaway contests, making our books available for free with coupon codes or by reducing the price to zero for a period of time, promoting the books on blogs and social media, and so on. For most unknown authors, I imagine the results are as middling as mine have been, so last month I decided to try something new.

My search for reviews led me to a few sites that offer authors the chance to give their books away for free in exchange for honest reviews. Some of these sites are more expensive than others and, as I was unwilling to risk spending a lot of money on something that was not guaranteed to work, I chose the site with the cheapest rate: Story Cartel.

For $25, you can post your novel on Story Cartel in various formats for three weeks. Anyone can download it during this time for free. As added incentive, those who leave reviews are entered into giveaways for prizes such as Kindle eReaders, Amazon and Barnes & Noble gift cards, and bestselling print books. I figured that for $25 I didn’t have much to lose, and if it helped me get a few reviews, all the better. After all, I’d read articles in which people had claimed to get 50+ reviews out of it.

My results, I’m afraid to say, were not quite so amazing. In fact, I’d have to label the entire experiment a failure, for in the end, I only got one solitary review for my $25. It was a very nice, 5-star review (for a total of two reviews on my novel’s Amazon page), but overall it was not worth it for me. Does that mean it won’t work for you? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think the success rate might be higher for an author with more of an established following than one like myself who is still trying to build one. The reason for this is that the onus is on you to promote the giveaway. I did my best to feature it on both social media and this blog but, again, I believe it comes down to how big (and dedicated) your following is.

As for the publishing process at Story Cartel, the interface was easy enough to use, though I would like to have seen a longer description field, as well as a place for me to enter a list of searchable tags (I feel that being limited to just two genres did not make the book searchable enough). It also might have helped if I could have made the book available for longer than three weeks.

I could have opted for Story Cartel’s more expensive option that features the book more prominently, but there’s no guarantee that would have helped get me more reviews. At least $25 wasn’t a huge amount to spend on a failed experiment–I’m just glad I didn’t try one of the more expensive sites that would have taken more than $100 out of my pocket.

I think the lesson from all this is that there is only so much you can do to drum up sales as an unknown author. A lot of it comes down to luck–you can have a great novel that never gets read by anyone, or a lousy novel that becomes a best seller [cough 50 Shades cough]. Most of us fall somewhere in between. That doesn’t mean I will stop trying (see below), it just means I’m being realistic. I was never under any illusion that I was going to become a best seller and have my novel turned into a movie. I’m just gratified that I was able to get it out in the world and that those who have read it have really enjoyed it.


In other news, you can now download the entire first half of my novel for free from Smashwords, and it’s only 99 cents to read the rest. I believe this 50% sample size may also apply to some of the other booksellers in the Smashwords distribution network, such as Barnes & NobleKobo, Oyster, Scribd, Inktera, Apple, and OverDrive (though not Amazon). I also intend to make more of my novel available for reading on this blog.

And stay tuned for a series of upcoming new releases: free short stories excerpted from my novel, which will be downloadable at booksellers and also posted here. The series of stories will live under the title, The Eyes of Mictlan: Origins. I hope you will enjoy them, and as always, I thank you for your support!

Keep Krampus in Christmas

When I wrote the following piece five years ago, most people in this country had never heard of Krampus. Since then, he has appeared in numerous TV shows, been featured in toys and ornaments, and now even has his own Hollywood film! So in honor of his emergence into American pop culture, I’m re-sharing my original post. And although I know I had nothing to do with this surge in Krampus popularity, I’m going to go ahead and take credit anyway. 🙂

Keep Krampus in Christmas

I would be remiss during this time of season if I did not touch on the most dominant cultural event in the world: Comic-Con.  Just kidding.  I’m talking, of course, about Christmas—a time for joy, giving, family, and . . . listening to the oppressed majority complain that the secularist heathens of the world have declared war on their beloved holiday.  These Christmas purists lament that the true meaning of the holiday has been lost—that we in America have relegated a pivotal symbol of Christmas to the sidelines.  You know what?  I agree, and it’s high time we rescued this figure from the fringes of the yuletide wastelands and restored him to his rightful place at the forefront of Christmas prominence.  So join me in demanding that we keep Krampus in Christmas.

“Krampus?” you may ask, “what the grinch are you talking about?”  Well, why don’t you grab a cup of cocoa, sit down by the fire, and let me tell you a Christmas story.  In many European traditions, Krampus is a grotesque, devil-like being who accompanies St. Nick during the holiday season.  While the latter gives gifts to the good children of the world, Krampus punishes the naughty children in scary ways, and his myth is still prominent in many places around Europe.  It’s a shame that Krampus never made the trip to the States with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and Yule logs.  How much better behaved would children be if they feared retribution by Krampus?  I mean, what kid nowawadys is really afraid of a little coal in his stocking?  Today’s kids need something with a little more oomph to strike the fear of Christmas into them.

Imagine how different our traditions would be if Krampus had made it over here.  Song lyrics like “You better watch out,” “He’s making a list,” and “He sees you when you’re sleeping” would carry much darker connotations, while the most famous Christmas poem might have been entirely different: “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Krampus was stirring, he stomped on a mouse.”  And how much cooler would those claymation Christmas specials have been with a little taste of Krampus?  Over time, he could have become one of the more popular Christmas characters and, just as Santa Claus has become more benign over the years (from his darker beginnings), I imagine Krampus taking a similar path (also known as the Godzilla path): the bad guy in earlier films, the good guy in later films.  The older films would depict Krampus threatening Christmas while newer films would have him stepping in to save Christmas from some outside threat.

One could also imagine what a day in the life would be like for Santa and Krampus.  Do they talk to each other or not?  A trip around the world in that tiny sleigh would be a long time to sit there in awkward silence.  Do they live together at the North Pole?  Talk about the ultimate odd couple!  I could see Santa as the Oscar-like slob leaving his red suits all over the place, much to the ire of the uptight, Felix-like Krampus, who constantly yells at Santa to pick up after himself.  Or do they never see each other at all except on Christmas Eve?  Perhaps they just clock out at the end of the day like the wolf and sheepdog from that Warner Brothers cartoon: “Good night, Claus.”  “Good night, Kramp.”

How much different would our decorations be?  In Europe men dress as Krampus, carrying chains, bells, and switches to scare kids (and the adults use the Krampus festivals as an excuse to drink all weekend).  Perhaps our Christmas lights would be strung on festive chains, and maybe we’d have candy switches instead of candy canes.  On Christmas Eve, in addition to leaving milk and cookies for Santa, we might leave beer and brats for Krampus.  The possibilities are endless.

So let’s all work together to keep Krampus in Christmas.  And remember, kids, if you hear an extra set of hooves on the roof on Christmas Eve, you may just be getting a visit from the malevolent monster himself.  Pleasant dreams and Merry Christmas!

Remembering Heidi on Her Birthday

I’m re-posting this in honor of what would have been Heidi’s 17th birthday, along with an expanded tribute video incorporating footage that I found since the original post.

We miss you so much, baby girl. Not a day has gone by in the last four months when we haven’t thought of you.

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Dear Heidi,

We fell in love with you from the moment we saw you on that wintry day back in 2000. While all of the other dogs up for adoption were jumping around in their crates and barking, you were just lying there, seemingly in your own world, a beautiful shepherd mix, oblivious to the chaos around you. We knew right away that you were the one who would make our family complete.

Your foster mom told us your story, about the hard life you’d had. Although they found you living as a stray, they were sure you had been owned before, and almost definitely abused by some awful human beings. Somehow you escaped, whether by your own choice or theirs, and ventured out on your own. You were eventually rescued from a cave along the river in Trenton in the middle of winter, skinny and pregnant. We liked to joke that you were the Matt Foley of dogs: “I lived in a cave down by the river!”

WP_000021When we first brought you into our home it was not easy. You still had the mentality of a wild animal, complete with coarse fur and an utter distrust of humans, especially men. You were scared of your own shadow, spending the first few years of your life with your tail between your legs. You refused to go on walks; you would just plop yourself down on the ground and not budge. The first night you slept in our bedroom you peed all over the room. The first day we left you alone in the house we shut you in the laundry room only to come home and discover that you’d eaten your way through the louvered door to get out. We found you sitting on the couch in the living room—you had not touched anything else in the house, you had just wanted out of the laundry room.

I’m sure some people would have considered sending you back during those tough first weeks, but we refused to give up on you, and eventually you rewarded our patience with the 15 happiest years of our lives. You finally warmed up to your mommy and became completely attached to her. It would take me a lot longer to earn your love and trust, a couple of years in fact, but when it finally happened it was the most amazing feeling in the world.

03063034You would never be a completely normal dog; your neuroses followed you for the rest of your life. You would run away in fright at the slightest sound, from the ice maker in our fridge to a car door slamming outside (during the last few years of your life you would go mostly deaf and I swear it was the happiest you’d ever been—no more noises to frighten you). You were terrified of spinning things like ceiling fans and bicycle tires. And crowds of people? Forget about it. There were so many occasions when we’d be out for a walk and something would spook you into flight. You became very adept at doing a Harry Houdini out of your collar (thanks to your big shepherd neck and small terrier head) and then running all the way home.

But you got better with each passing month. Eventually your tail began to wag, your coat softened, and you started to hang out with us more often in the house. Watching you blossom from a basket case into a happy, playful, and loving dog was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Your love and trust was all the more special because we had to earn it. You would never trust many other people in your life, but that was okay, you had us and we had you; we were the perfect match. We loved our neurotic nutcase, and we were the only ones who ever understood you.

P1060123Your name was Heidi but we had so many nicknames for you. You probably thought your name was Smushyface because I called you that so often. Then there was Heidarolla, Little Egg, Baby Girl, Smusharella, Potato, Potato Pancake, Sweet Potato, Sugarloaf, Cinnamon Girl, and dozens more. And of course Heidi-Ho—I used to sing that Blood, Sweat & Tears song to you all the time:

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Hi-de-ho, hi-de-hi
Gonna get me a piece of the sky
Gonna get me some of that old sweet roll
Singin’ hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

We don’t have children but you were our daughter in every sense of the word. We raised you, loved you, and cared for you for more than 15 years. We watched you grow into an amazing individual. We took you on every vacation. Watching you frolic on the beach was among the happiest of all my vacation memories. We truly had a wonderful life together.

Then in your 15th year we began to notice that you were having trouble with stairs, culminating in the nasty spill you took down our home stairs, which forced us to make the heartbreaking decision to put up a gate and confine you to the first floor. Your right rear paw began to knuckle over when you walked and, shortly after your 16th birthday, you were diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, an insidious, ALS-like neurological disease that was slowly paralyzing you and robbing you of your ability to control your bodily functions.

We were devastated, but determined to rally around you. All of our research assured us that you were not in any pain, so we would do our best to care for you and manage the disease. If we had put you to sleep, as some had suggested, we would have missed out on the last six months of your life, and that would have been a sin, because there were still so many happy days ahead. You were not ready to go; you were still the same spunky dog, so full of life. You had always been a fighter and a survivor—you just needed some extra help now. You could still move around the house on your own, but you needed assistance with going to the bathroom to keep you from falling over in the middle of doing your business. Helping you walk outside made me feel even closer to you, and it brought you closer to us, as you instinctively knew that you now needed to depend on us for some more things. We even bought you a doggie wheelchair for longer walks, which I had been hoping to do much more of as the weather warmed.

P1070511I won’t deny that it was sometimes difficult, especially for your mommy, who, as the first one awake in the morning, bore the brunt of cleaning up your accidents and washing you off, but you were more than worth it. You were our baby girl and we would have done anything for you.

We had begun to steel ourselves for the end, especially as it became harder to keep weight on you. We had envisioned a final day of fun where we would take you to the park and feed you all of your favorite foods, burgers galore and cream cheese for dessert. But we weren’t there yet, and neither were you. You still had so much zest for life–how could we ever have lived with ourselves if we had extinguished that light?

We thought you would tell us when you were ready to go, that we would see it in your eyes or your demeanor. Then we would know that it was time to plan your happy final day. But we never got the chance because on May 3rd, 2015, four months shy of your 17th birthday, a sudden attack of bloat stole you from us in an instant. In the end it was not your DM or your heart murmur that took you, but damned bloat—and damn that bloat to hell for making your final day of life so painful. We rushed you to the hospital and they gave you pain meds and made you comfortable. The doctor said they could operate but with your age and all of your medical issues, we knew it was time. We were not going to put you through a surgery that you might not even survive, so we made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

They brought you into the room so we could spend our final moments together as a family. I don’t know how much you were actually there because of the meds you were on, but I choose to believe that you knew we were with you, your pack mates, petting you and kissing you, holding you until it was over.

Staying with you while the doctor ended your suffering was unbelievably traumatic, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I would do it again. There was no way I was going to leave you in the hospital to die with strangers. And I’m so thankful that you did not die alone while we were at work, that you were able to spend your final moments on Earth surrounded by your loved ones.

P1070456We were in shock. We had expected a gradual decline and had hoped for a more peaceful end. We were not prepared to lose you so quickly and so violently. Three days later we’re still in shock. Every time I walk around the house I expect you to be there. I see you out of the corner of my eye, your nose peeking around the corner, your ear popping up from behind the couch. I hear the tags of your collar jingling in the next room. My mind goes on autopilot, one moment thinking I have to put this plate of food up high so Heidi doesn’t get it, another moment walking downstairs to say goodnight, but you’re not there.

I don’t know how this is supposed to work without you. The house is so empty. You moved into our home right after we did. We’ve never really lived here without you. Everywhere I turn there are signs of your presence, from the scratched-up front doorjamb to the gouged-out windowsills in the guest room; from the torn-up area of carpet on the upstairs landing to the nose prints all over the back French doors—and everywhere in between. You made an indelible mark on our lives.

DSC_0958We were so lucky to have you for 15 of your 16 1/2 years on this planet, and incredibly lucky that you lived so far beyond the average lifespan for a dog of your type, but I still feel cheated. I wasn’t ready to let you go, not like that. I miss you so much. I miss your flippy-floppy ears, the way one ear stood up straight while the other went halfway up and then out to the side at a right angle. I miss your nose, petting the bridge as you started to fall asleep. I’ll miss finding that special spot on your neck that gave you so much pleasure. I’ll miss rubbing your belly, rubbing your paws, holding your silky ears in my hands, that white area of your chest. I’ll miss running around the house with you as you pounced on me like a wild animal stalking its prey. I’ll miss how frisky you would get as I left the house in the morning, nipping at me as if to say, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

P1060128And god how I’ll miss the way you’d sometimes rest your head on my lap while I petted you, or when you’d burrow under our legs and stick your head up on the couch cushion, demanding that we pet you. I’ll miss watching you take lawn dives and roll around in the snow. I’ll miss throwing the ball with you and fighting to get it out of your mouth. I’ll miss how excited you got over your nightly cheesy treats, the way you jumped around when I asked you if you wanted to go “bye byes” in the car, how you hid under the bed during thunderstorms. I’ll miss feeding you out of my hand, having you hang out back with me while I grilled, and watching you take almost an entire flight of stairs in a single bound. I’ll miss watching you sleep, all curled up and pretty, or running in your dreams. And I’ll really miss all of your neurotic issues because they made you uniquely you. There will never be another dog like you; they truly broke the mold.

Cape May Point Beach (September 2014)I take comfort in the knowledge that we gave you a great life. I know in my heart that we were meant to be together. I’m not sure what would have happened to you if we hadn’t decided to go to Pet Smart that day, whether you would have clicked with anyone else or whether they would have been willing to put in the work it took to bring you out of your shell. But you rescued us as much as we rescued you, and I want to thank you for that. Thank you for bringing more joy into our lives than you can possibly imagine. We learned so much from you. You made us not only better dog parents, but better people. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. You were the best thing that ever happened to us, the best part of us.

I love you, Heidi Girl, and I will never, ever forget you. Rest easy now, my baby.

P1040552

Quotes from My Novel

To help spread the word about my novel, I’ve decided to begin sharing selected quotes on a weekly basis. Most of these will be in the form of small snippets on my social media feeds, but from time to time I will share graphical passages like the one below, especially for longer quotes that won’t fit in a Twitter post. When I do create a visual passage, I will also share it here, but the smaller snippets will only be posted to my Twitter feed and Facebook page so that I can keep my book-related posts on this blog to a minimum. So, while there will be an uptick in posts about my book, I won’t be neglecting my travel stories and photos. In fact, I am currently working on a post about my visit to the Scottish Highlands.

quote

My First Novel: The Long Road to Publication

cover3bI’m pleased to announce that my debut novel The Eyes of Mictlan is now available for purchase at Amazon in both Kindle (eBook) and paperback formats. The Kindle version is $2.99. If you do not own a Kindle, Amazon has free Kindle reading software for almost any computer or mobile device, as well as a free online reader. The eBook is also available for free to Amazon Prime members (via the lending library) and Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

For those of you who prefer the tactile feel of a book in your hands, the paperback version is $9.99. If you would like both versions, you can buy the Kindle version for 99 cents after purchasing the paperback. You can also order either version by clicking on the cover image to the left.

Well, that takes care of the promo portion of this post. The rest, should you choose to keep reading, is the story of my journey from concept to publication.

To quote the infamous theme song from Star Trek: Enterprise: “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.” I first put pen to paper (yes, pen and paper) back in 1997 when I wrote the first chapter and outlined the rest of the novel. The idea for the novel originally sprung from a text-based online role-playing game I was considering playing on AOL back in the days of dial-up modems (kids, ask your parents). As part of creating a character for the game, you were supposed to come up with a back story for your character. I never ended up playing the game, but I liked the character I created, so I decided to turn his story into a novel.

My original intention was to write it as an experimental serial novel, in which I would post a new chapter at regular intervals. In fact, the first chapter has been available online in one form or another since 1998.

An early online version of my novel, circa 2006.
An early online version of my novel under its original title, circa 2006.

However, when I realized that there was enough material for a full-blown novel, I altered my plans. It took many years to complete—as any aspiring writer will tell you, one of the biggest obstacles to completing a novel is finding the time between your job, housework, and various other adult responsibilities—but eventually (and with the help of a period of unemployment) I finished the first draft in early 2009. Subsequent drafts followed and I finally had a draft that I deemed worthy of submission in the winter of 2012.

I tried the traditional publishing route first, submitting queries to agents, but then I began to notice that more and more people were self-publishing and that the self-publishing industry was growing at an astronomical rate, with even established authors beginning to self-publish. I like the idea of maintaining full control over my property and earning higher royalties on each sale, not that I’m expecting to earn much (you don’t really make any money on a book unless it becomes a best-seller). It’s more about the work itself, getting it out there into the world, and self-publishing seemed like the best way for me to accomplish that. The traditional querying process did have its benefits, though—it helped me to hone the marketing of my book, specifically the synopsis I eventually used for the back cover—but I am happy with my decision to go the indie route.

Self-publishing is a lot of work, especially if you choose to do everything yourself as I did. I broke a couple of self-publishing rules of thumb: don’t be your own editor and don’t design your own cover. Handling everything myself was like having a second job. My wife, who has an editorial background, was a big help in proofing an early draft, but I performed all subsequent editorial passes of the manuscript myself. The big danger in editing your own manuscript, even if you have an editorial background as I do, is that you are too close to the material to make the cuts that are necessary—and there is a lot of truth to that—but I revisited the manuscript a couple of years later when I made the decision to self-publish, and by then I was far enough removed from the material that I was able to make some ruthless cuts that I had resisted making in earlier drafts.

One major thing you need to keep an eye on when self-publishing is whether you are using any material that might be subject to copyright (such as song lyrics) because you will not have a publisher to handle obtaining the necessary permissions. You could try to obtain the rights yourself, but in my case I found it easier to go back through the entire manuscript and remove any such references either through deletion or by altering the prose to make the references non-explicit. I don’t think these edits had any negative impact on the story anyway—in fact they forced me to be a bit more inventive—so I’d say it’s best for self-publishing authors to just avoid copyrightable references altogether.

The Back Cover

As for the cover, I am not even close to being an artist, but I have enough Photoshop experience that I was able to make a cover that looks decently professional. I had first tried one of Amazon’s online cover templates, but these were too plain and I didn’t want my cover to look like everyone else’s, so I spent a lot of time getting the look I wanted. The front art includes a real photo of mine that I manipulated via Photoshop to depict a scene from the novel. For the back cover (of the paperback) I chose to use an author photo rather than create another image. A professional designer probably could have created a better cover in half the time it took me, but I am pleased with it overall.

The most work, however, revolved around formatting both the paperback and Kindle versions. The easiest approach would have been to format the paperback version in Word and then convert it to an html file for the eBook version, but I did it backwards because I had not originally intended to do a paperback version. I started with a Word doc and converted it to an HTML file. However, I was not entirely pleased with the conversion, so I put on my Web Designer hat and began editing the HTML file (this would later come back to bite me when I began formatting the Word doc for paperback).

After uploading the HTML file and viewing it on Amazon’s previewer (a nifty feature that shows you how the eBook will display on various mobile devices), I had to make even further edits to account for display issues on certain devices. By this point, I had made so many tweaks to the HTML file directly that when I discovered new edits that needed to be made to the original manuscript during the paperback phase, I had to edit both the Word and HTML versions separately—I couldn’t simply re-convert  from the Word file or I would have lost all of the extra work I had done on the HTML file. My advice: do not do it the way I did. 🙂

Once I finally got the eBook version looking good in all devices, it was time to format the paperback version. The paperback is created through a separate site called CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon. The nice thing about using this service is that it does not cost you any money upfront—the books are printed on demand and you make a percentage of the profits minus the manufacturing costs. If you already have a Kindle version of your book, Amazon will automatically link it to the paperback version once it goes live.

As with the Kindle version, it took a lot of work to get the paperback looking perfect (fonts, page headers/numbers, gutter/margin settings, etc.), but at least with the paperback version you only have to format it correctly once and then you’re done—no worrying about cross-device compatibility. After completing the paperback version it was then time to create author pages on Amazon and CreateSpace, as well as update my blog to help market the release.

The Paperback
The Paperback

Some of you may have noticed the new title. Life’s Blood had been the title of my novel since I wrote the first chapter all the way back in 1997, but when I began the self-publishing process, I noticed that there are roughly a dozen books on Amazon with either Life’s Blood or Life Blood in the title. I didn’t want my book to get lost in a sea of similar titles, so even though I did not relish the idea of making copy changes, redoing my cover, and editing all references on my blog to Life’s Blood, I decided that I needed to come up with a new title.

After brainstorming a bunch of ideas and scanning my novel for a line or phrase that might make for a good title, I settled on The Eyes of Mictlan. It is certainly unique, as I saw just one other book on Amazon with Mictlan in the title. It is also significant to the plot and has an aura of mystery about it, something that the more generic-sounding previous title did not, so I think it may end up being a blessing in disguise. Sometimes necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Whether it translates to more sales remains to be seen, but at least I’ve given it a fighting chance to stand out.

I decided to join Amazon’s KDP Select program for the Kindle version, which lets you earn up to 70% royalties as opposed to the normal 35% and also makes the book available in the lending library for Amazon Prime members (for which you can earn a small royalty each time it is read). The trade-off is that you must make the eBook exclusive to Amazon for three months and re-commit to additional three month-periods for as long as you remain in the program. Established authors may balk at the exclusivity requirement but overall it seems like a good deal for new authors. I decided to price the eBook at $2.99, which is the minimum price you can set under the rules of KDP Select, though I have the option of making it available for cheaper or free for short periods of time as part of promotions.

The design of the paperback is trade rather than mass market, so it has a good size to it, similar to a small hardcover. However, it is expensive to produce, so $9.99 was basically as cheap as I could make it while still earning a small profit (I will actually earn twice as much on sales of the eBook, despite it being $7 cheaper). In order to make the paperback $9.99, I had to decline the expanded distribution option, which would have made it available to libraries, book stores, and similar entities. The production costs would have skyrocketed under this option and I would have needed to set the price around $14 to make even a tiny profit. I just didn’t think that was worth it—who’s going to spend $14 on a paperback from a first-time author? I’m not concerned about missing out on extra distribution channels at this point since I don’t expect to sell many paperbacks anyway; I imagine most people will opt for the less-expensive Kindle version.

So anyway, that’s the story of my story. If nothing else ever happens with the novel, at least I finished it and it’s out there in the world. If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it. If you like it, please spread the word . . . and if you don’t like it—well, maybe don’t spread the word. 😉

Dear Heidi

03063033

We fell in love with you from the moment we saw you on that wintry day back in 2000. While all of the other dogs up for adoption were jumping around in their crates and barking, you were just lying there, seemingly in your own world, a beautiful shepherd mix, oblivious to the chaos around you. We knew right away that you were the one who would make our family complete.

Your foster mom told us your story, about the hard life you’d had. Although they found you living as a stray, they were sure you had been owned before, and almost definitely abused by some awful human beings. Somehow you escaped, whether by your own choice or theirs, and ventured out on your own. You were eventually rescued from a cave along the river in Trenton in the middle of winter, skinny and pregnant. We liked to joke that you were the Matt Foley of dogs: “I lived in a cave down by the river!”

WP_000021When we first brought you into our home it was not easy. You still had the mentality of a wild animal, complete with coarse fur and an utter distrust of humans, especially men. You were scared of your own shadow, spending the first few years of your life with your tail between your legs. You refused to go on walks; you would just plop yourself down on the ground and not budge. The first night you slept in our bedroom you peed all over the room. The first day we left you alone in the house we shut you in the laundry room only to come home and discover that you’d eaten your way through the louvered door to get out. We found you sitting on the couch in the living room—you had not touched anything else in the house, you had just wanted out of the laundry room.

I’m sure some people would have considered sending you back during those tough first weeks, but we refused to give up on you, and eventually you rewarded our patience with the 15 happiest years of our lives. You finally warmed up to your mommy and became completely attached to her. It would take me a lot longer to earn your love and trust, a couple of years in fact, but when it finally happened it was the most amazing feeling in the world.

03063034You would never be a completely normal dog; your neuroses followed you for the rest of your life. You would run away in fright at the slightest sound, from the ice maker in our fridge to a car door slamming outside (during the last few years of your life you would go mostly deaf and I swear it was the happiest you’d ever been—no more noises to frighten you). You were terrified of spinning things like ceiling fans and bicycle tires. And crowds of people? Forget about it. There were so many occasions when we’d be out for a walk and something would spook you into flight. You became very adept at doing a Harry Houdini out of your collar (thanks to your big shepherd neck and small terrier head) and then running all the way home.

But you got better with each passing month. Eventually your tail began to wag, your coat softened, and you started to hang out with us more often in the house. Watching you blossom from a basket case into a happy, playful, and loving dog was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Your love and trust was all the more special because we had to earn it. You would never trust many other people in your life, but that was okay, you had us and we had you; we were the perfect match. We loved our neurotic nutcase, and we were the only ones who ever understood you.

P1060123Your name was Heidi but we had so many nicknames for you. You probably thought your name was Smushyface because I called you that so often. Then there was Heidarolla, Little Egg, Baby Girl, Smusharella, Potato, Potato Pancake, Sweet Potato, Sugarloaf, Cinnamon Girl, and dozens more. And of course Heidi-Ho—I used to sing that Blood, Sweat & Tears song to you all the time:

mike and heidi2

Hi-de-ho, hi-de-hi
Gonna get me a piece of the sky
Gonna get me some of that old sweet roll
Singin’ hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

We don’t have children but you were our daughter in every sense of the word. We raised you, loved you, and cared for you for more than 15 years. We watched you grow into an amazing individual. We took you on every vacation. Watching you frolic on the beach was among the happiest of all my vacation memories. We truly had a wonderful life together.

Then in your 15th year we began to notice that you were having trouble with stairs, culminating in the nasty spill you took down our home stairs, which forced us to make the heartbreaking decision to put up a gate and confine you to the first floor. Your right rear paw began to knuckle over when you walked and, shortly after your 16th birthday, you were diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, an insidious, ALS-like neurological disease that was slowly paralyzing you and robbing you of your ability to control your bodily functions.

We were devastated, but determined to rally around you. All of our research assured us that you were not in any pain, so we would do our best to care for you and manage the disease. If we had put you to sleep, as some had suggested, we would have missed out on the last six months of your life, and that would have been a sin, because there were still so many happy days ahead. You were not ready to go; you were still the same spunky dog, so full of life. You had always been a fighter and a survivor—you just needed some extra help now. You could still move around the house on your own, but you needed assistance with going to the bathroom to keep you from falling over in the middle of doing your business. Helping you walk outside made me feel even closer to you, and it brought you closer to us, as you instinctively knew that you now needed to depend on us for some more things. We even bought you a doggie wheelchair for longer walks, which I had been hoping to do much more of as the weather warmed.

P1070511I won’t deny that it was sometimes difficult, especially for your mommy, who, as the first one awake in the morning, bore the brunt of cleaning up your accidents and washing you off, but you were more than worth it. You were our baby girl and we would have done anything for you.

We had begun to steel ourselves for the end, especially as it became harder to keep weight on you. We had envisioned a final day of fun where we would take you to the park and feed you all of your favorite foods, burgers galore and cream cheese for dessert. But we weren’t there yet, and neither were you. You still had so much zest for life–how could we ever have lived with ourselves if we had extinguished that light?

We thought you would tell us when you were ready to go, that we would see it in your eyes or your demeanor. Then we would know that it was time to plan your happy final day. But we never got the chance because on May 3rd, 2015, four months shy of your 17th birthday, a sudden attack of bloat stole you from us in an instant. In the end it was not your DM or your heart murmur that took you, but damned bloat—and damn that bloat to hell for making your final day of life so painful. We rushed you to the hospital and they gave you pain meds and made you comfortable. The doctor said they could operate but with your age and all of your medical issues, we knew it was time. We were not going to put you through a surgery that you might not even survive, so we made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

They brought you into the room so we could spend our final moments together as a family. I don’t know how much you were actually there because of the meds you were on, but I choose to believe that you knew we were with you, your pack mates, petting you and kissing you, holding you until it was over.

Staying with you while the doctor ended your suffering was unbelievably traumatic, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I would do it again. There was no way I was going to leave you in the hospital to die with strangers. And I’m so thankful that you did not die alone while we were at work, that you were able to spend your final moments on Earth surrounded by your loved ones.

P1070456We were in shock. We had expected a gradual decline and had hoped for a more peaceful end. We were not prepared to lose you so quickly and so violently. Three days later we’re still in shock. Every time I walk around the house I expect you to be there. I see you out of the corner of my eye, your nose peeking around the corner, your ear popping up from behind the couch. I hear the tags of your collar jingling in the next room. My mind goes on autopilot, one moment thinking I have to put this plate of food up high so Heidi doesn’t get it, another moment walking downstairs to say goodnight, but you’re not there.

I don’t know how this is supposed to work without you. The house is so empty. You moved into our home right after we did. We’ve never really lived here without you. Everywhere I turn there are signs of your presence, from the scratched-up front doorjamb to the gouged-out windowsills in the guest room; from the torn-up area of carpet on the upstairs landing to the nose prints all over the back French doors—and everywhere in between. You made an indelible mark on our lives.

DSC_0958We were so lucky to have you for 15 of your 16 1/2 years on this planet, and incredibly lucky that you lived so far beyond the average lifespan for a dog of your type, but I still feel cheated. I wasn’t ready to let you go, not like that. I miss you so much. I miss your flippy-floppy ears, the way one ear stood up straight while the other went halfway up and then out to the side at a right angle. I miss your nose, petting the bridge as you started to fall asleep. I’ll miss finding that special spot on your neck that gave you so much pleasure. I’ll miss rubbing your belly, rubbing your paws, holding your silky ears in my hands, that white area of your chest. I’ll miss running around the house with you as you pounced on me like a wild animal stalking its prey. I’ll miss how frisky you would get as I left the house in the morning, nipping at me as if to say, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

P1060128And god how I’ll miss the way you’d sometimes rest your head on my lap while I petted you, or when you’d burrow under our legs and stick your head up on the couch cushion, demanding that we pet you. I’ll miss watching you take lawn dives and roll around in the snow. I’ll miss throwing the ball with you and fighting to get it out of your mouth. I’ll miss how excited you got over your nightly cheesy treats, the way you jumped around when I asked you if you wanted to go “bye byes” in the car, how you hid under the bed during thunderstorms. I’ll miss feeding you out of my hand, having you hang out back with me while I grilled, and watching you take almost an entire flight of stairs in a single bound. I’ll miss watching you sleep, all curled up and pretty, or running in your dreams. And I’ll really miss all of your neurotic issues because they made you uniquely you. There will never be another dog like you; they truly broke the mold.

Cape May Point Beach (September 2014)I take comfort in the knowledge that we gave you a great life. I know in my heart that we were meant to be together. I’m not sure what would have happened to you if we hadn’t decided to go to Pet Smart that day, whether you would have clicked with anyone else or whether they would have been willing to put in the work it took to bring you out of your shell. But you rescued us as much as we rescued you, and I want to thank you for that. Thank you for bringing more joy into our lives than you can possibly imagine. We learned so much from you. You made us not only better dog parents, but better people. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. You were the best thing that ever happened to us, the best part of us.

I love you, Heidi Girl, and I will never, ever forget you. Rest easy now, my baby.

P1040552

Looking Back

As 2013 winds to a close, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the past year, during which this blog has come a long way: on this day last year I had three followers and only posted sporadically. As I began posting with more frequency (concentrating on my travel stories) my audience grew, which in turn inspired me to post even more frequently, and so on . . . it’s the circle of life. 😉

This year has been very rewarding for me as a writer and I want to thank all of you for inspiring me to stick with it. I’ve never been much for resolutions, but if I were to make any, they would be to work harder on getting my novel published and to set aside more time for visiting the blogs of everyone who has visited mine.

In 2014 I will continue writing and sharing the journal from my recent trip to Mexico, and I am considering a trip to London this summer to see the Monty Python reunion (and build a trip of the UK around it). Until then, and in keeping with the tradition of year-end countdowns, here is a countdown of my own (or I should say count-up since I’m starting with #1). The following posts were my most popular of 2013 based on “likes.”

  1.  Photo of the Day: Overlooking Dubrovnik – A happy accident photo.
  2.  The Vintage Reel Award – My acceptance of this award from my fellow blogger at The Vintage Postcard touches on some fond childhood memories.
  3.  The Inca Trail Day 3: Almost There (My Trip to Peru, Part 6) – This was my favorite day of the Inca Trail hike as we passed by numerous remote Inca ruins that the average tourist will never see.
  4.  Dubrovnik: A Tour of King’s Landing (and other locations) – This is my most-viewed post by a wide, wide margin. Perhaps I should start tagging all of my posts with “Game of Thrones.” 🙂
  5.  Eurotrip 2009 Part 2: Munich – Recounting my adventures in Munich, Germany, including stops in Dinkelsburg and Nordlingen.
  6.  The Inca Trail Day 2: Detour Through Hell (My Trip to Peru, Part 5) – Although this was the worst day of my trip to Peru (hiking up a mountain through freezing sleet), it is probably my favorite post because it represents some of the best storytelling of any of my travel writing.
  7.  My Trip to Peru, Part 2: Here and There – My time in Cusco as well as excursions to Maras and the Inca ruins of Moray.
  8.  Photographs and Memories – This poem is a tribute to my grandfather.
  9.  Eurotrip 2009 Part 4: Lucerne – The beautiful city of Lucerne, Switzerland and breathtaking views from the top of Mount Pilatus.
  10.  Hiking the D&R Canal – Photos from my hike along the D&R Canal in Princeton, NJ.

And here are ten of my most-viewed posts:

Well, that’s it for 2013. I wish all of you a Happy New Year. See in the blogosphere!