De nada

Riding my bike down a wooded path through the park, I slowed nearly to a stop when I saw a toddler and his family ahead. The boy was in the path, hopping around and being silly. His chubby cheeks were pink, and cupid’s bow lips smeared with blackberry juice. The toddler’s mother, father, and older sister were picking the berries along the edge of the woods, while the the little guy’s intention seemed to be to joyfully obtain as much attention as possible. He was as cute as a little Teddy bear, and just as huggable.

As I was admiring the toddler and flashing approving smiles at his father, the boy’s sister came up to me, hair in dark pigtails trailing, and in her hands a small plastic bowl bearing a few plump and shiny berries. The girl looked to be about four-years-old. She tipped the bowl toward me, to show me her treasure, saying something to me in Spanish. Though I did not understand her words, I understood what she meant, and I admired her berries with enthusiastic words and a smile as her father stood by and grinned.

In response to my admiration, the little girl plucked a berry from her bowl and held it out, offering it to me. I had no idea where those tiny hands had been, but I recognized the value of her gift, gladly accepted it with a “Thank you!” and put it in my mouth right away. The tangy sweet flavor burst across my tongue as I began to chew, and I smiled at my benefactor in gratitude, exclaiming “Delicious!” I thanked the girl again as she moved to the side of the trail. “De nada,” she replied, walking back to the brambles to begin picking again.

I looked at her father, who was beaming. By then I had realized that the family spoke Spanish, and little- if any English. “De nada,” I said, nodding at him and smiling approvingly. He smiled back with obvious pride and love for his family. “Adios!” I said, and the father, daughter, and son chimed back, “Adios!”

Pedaling on my way, I smiled for a long time after that encounter, reliving it in my mind. I thought what a treat is must be for the family to harvest enjoy the wild berries, and how adorable those children are. “De nada,” the tiny girl had said, “you’re welcome,” she meant, but the phrase literally means “it was nothing.” And yet, her gesture, to share one of her precious finds with a total stranger, meant everything.

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“So, therrrre I wuzzzzz…” a story about sea stories

P1060962 - Copy

The schooner PRIDE OF BALTIMORE II, as seen from the deck of LIBERTY CLIPPER, Baltimore Harbor, October 2010.


The story begins almost four years ago, while I was enjoying my first 1,000 miles of sailing aboard the beautiful schooner LIBERTY CLIPPER. A young deckhand aboard, named Alex, told me that all good sea stories must begin with a very salty and gruff opening: “So, therrrre I wuzzzzz…” And thus began Alex’s tale about walking the streets in NYC while on leave the night before, and meeting a pretty girl who invited him to watch a fight in a bizarre underground setting.

Since then, I have found Alex’s yarn spinner an effective beginning to my own tales of adventure and danger, telling stories of a rogue wave, a mast bent in two directions at once, the bad timing of infernal outboards, boarding a schooner by jumping from dock to shrouds and swinging from the rigging to the deck below, various accounts of bloody encounters, and beating a crew of scurvy rats.

In addition, I have gladly shared the story starter with many a sailing student, friend, and Sea Scout, including those of Sea Scout Ship 100. During a recent phone conversation with Ship 100′s skipper, Todd Skiles, he shared his own story about sea stories.

Todd began by relaying that an adult leader from another unit had said they love to hear about the inevitable Sea Scout “moments” when they come from Ship 100, because the ship relates these as great stories. Todd said he informed the person that the reason is that I had been the unit’s sailing coach for two years, and also taught him and the scouts the proper way to tell a sea story. “Put your left elbow on your left knee, lean forward, squint your right eye, and start with, “So therrrre I wuzzzzz…”

The skipper went on to tell me that one of his young “Midshipman” scouts had been in trouble at home, and the boy’s father, aiming to hold the 10-year-old accountable, told the son, “Why don’t you tell your skipper the story of how you got in trouble?” With no hesitation, the boy put his left elbow on his left knee, leaned forward, squinted his right eye, and began with, “So therrrre I wuzzzzz…”

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Single handing therapy


Coming in wing-and-wing, just before the trouble began.

Last weekend I enjoyed my first solo, or “single hand” sail in a very long time. This was something of a landmark for me, because, for almost two years, I was partially disabled by a succession of three leg injuries that affected both legs. Among other things, this prevented me from single handing. My disability required that I have help from a crew. Finding reliable people and training them can be a challenge of its own. Fortunately, some of my friends were willing and able to join me and learn, so we had some fine sails together last year.

However, there is a peace an joy in single handing that cannot be duplicated. While I have enjoyed sailing with my friends and brother, I have missed that singular feeling. So, I was delighted when Woodbridge Sailing School confirmed my reservation for the boat that is rigged for single handing.

The day was sunny, with light to moderate wind, perfect conditions for my first solo sail. For about two hours, I sailed about on the Potomac River, enjoying the ability to do just as I wished, when I wished, without need to give notice to crew. And the great silence was refreshing. Sometimes single handing is the best therapy.

I planned to dock under sail, which I love, especially wing-and-wing, meaning down wind, with one sail on each side of the boat. I was coming into the harbor wing-and-wing, and all was well until I tried to lower the main sail and found the halyard was jammed. This means that I could not slow the boat, so I had to abort that attempt to dock.

I navigated through the crowded and busy harbor, trying to get back out through each of the channels between the breakwaters, but the wind was coming from the wrong direction. Reaching the end of the harbor and wishing to avoid hitting the rock jetty, I jibed, narrowly avoiding the stupid bass boat with stupid people stupidly fishing the harbor, and on a starboard tack, managed to make it back out into the river.

There, I went on a beam reach until I was at the harbor opening near the sailing school dock. I headed out into the river a bit, to make sure I was safe from being blown against the breakwater or jetty. There, I dealt with the jammed halyard–caused by my own rigging mistake–pulled the main sail down, and secured it with sail ties.

Finally, I turned the boat back to shore. Approaching the dock, I let the jib fly, hopping lightly off the boat and onto the dock without a hitch or any problem with my legs. Thus, I regained my confidence in my ability to single hand, and felt great hope for my sailing future. Sometimes, single handing is the best therapy.

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Sea Scouts rock their first race

A-P1070440 - CopyTwo scouts and two adult leaders from Sea Scout Ship 100, DOMINION, donned their formal dress white uniforms to perform the flag raising during the opening ceremony of Quantico Yacht Club‘s fourth annual Open House. Shortly thereafter, they swapped out uniforms for sailing clothes, so they could enjoy the unit’s first race, the QYC’s first annual Ocean Research Project Regatta. Scouts Zach Skiles and Aidan Wiecki were accompanied by the unit’s skipper,Todd Skiles, and adult leader Peter Wiecki.
Though I am “officially retired” from Sea Scouting, at Skipper Skiles’ request, I put my Sailing Coach hat back on for this special occasion. The five of us sailed Ship 100′s Catalina 22, BENJAMIN CHASE, the vessel named after the two Tiger Cub Scouts killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting.
A-P1070449 - CopyThe first two hours were marked by light to no air–which was a challenge for our crew–but they came up with ways to pass the time until the wind finally picked up just before we made the first mark.

Once we were “really sailing,” spirits brightened and everyone enjoyed the jaunt back down river to the finish. It did not hurt that we took home the 3rd place award for spinnaker class.

A-P1070473The scouts were real troopers, made the best of conditions, learned a lot, enjoyed the day, and have a great story to tell about their first race. Aidan summed up the experience when he said, “This was the best day of sailing so far!”
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A poignant journey

Having been in much need of some of what I call “dock therapy,” I gladly accepted the invitation to spend a day helping my friend, Ken, move his Hunter 33 sailboat 60 miles down river. Ken’s friend, Ray, a highly experienced sailor–and fellow yacht club member–had also accepted the invitation.

Morning at the marina.

Morning at the marina.

The weather was as mixed as my feelings about the trip. When I arrived at the marina, it seemed the clouds were breaking up as the sky grew lighter, but instead they hung out longer than we hoped. The first half of the day was overcast and chilly. I wore five layers on top, with a pair of jeans below–and sometimes wished I had worn long John bottoms, too.

However, as early afternoon rolled in, the clouds gradually thinned, until the mostly sunny sky made each of us smile in gratitude for the warmth and light.

Afternoon brought the sun and wind to make us smile.

Afternoon brought the sun and wind to make us smile.

Ray, Ken, and I took turns at the helm, motoring, sailing and motor-sailing as conditions warranted. Winds varied from 2KT to gusts of 30KT. For a good long stretch, winds were 16-17KT, punctuated by the 20-30KT gusts, which kept us on our toes. A particularly memorable moment was when the first 30KT gust hit the boat, while I was at the helm. PIXIE DUST rounded up [headed into the wind] so fiercely that it was as if she had a mind of her own. Though I had the helm hard over, it made no difference. I had never experienced that boat heeling over so hard, and was glad that I had thought to set down my mug of hot soup a few minutes before.

Another unique experience on this transit was having to avoid the numerous gill nets set to catch striped bass and white perch. These were laid in rows generally perpendicular to the shore, bearing small marker flags that were difficult to see. We wanted to avoid hitting them, particularly when the engine was running.

Ken had prepared a detailed itinerary that noted times that we should have been meeting particular marks, like the 301 Bridge and certain buoys. Sometimes, we were a bit ahead of schedule, others a bit behind, and Ken occasionally cranked up the engine RPMs to keep us on track. His son, Mike, drove down to meet us and was waiting to give a hand as Ken deftly backed the boat into her temporary berth.

PIXIE DUST settled in her temporary berth.

PIXIE DUST settled in her temporary berth.

While Ken and Mike tended to a small problem with the “land yacht,” Ray and I gathered gear and bags to put ashore, put covers on the electronics, and prepared the electrical for hook-up. Soon, we were on our way to a bountiful dinner at the local Driftwood restaurant, filling up on iced tea and seafood.

The original plan was to take PIXIE DUST to her final destination and turn her over to her new owner the following day. However, the forecast  for Sunday’s weather had changed, portending a “not fun” kind of day, so Ken decided to postpone the second leg until the following weekend. I am hoping it will work out for me to assist then, as well, but I may have already had my last time aboard PIXIE DUST.

Ken and Deb have owned PIXIE DUST for nine years, enjoying many fine adventures. They have been kind enough to invite me on several jaunts and races in the past three years, giving me many a wealth of happy PIXIE DUST memories that I will long recall with pleasure.



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To feel rich and young

P1070349When my children were young, I was pen pals with a Russian mother whose daughter was just a little older than my firstborn. I would send to Lena things that she could not obtain in the motherland, especially anything that she specifically requested. Most notably, she asked for a pair of blue jeans. I found a nice pair in Lena’s size and sent them off, hoping that they would go unnoticed by the Russian mail thieves. After she received the jeans, Lena told me that these were so expensive there that the only time people have them is when they are young and engaged to be married. Lena wrote that, because of my gift, “Not only do I feel rich, I feel young!”

Recently, I received a gift that did the same for me, a box of Phebo brand glycerin soap from Brazil, including eight bars of the rose scented kind–which I have hardly been able to find in the US. Before I even had the box open, I could smell that old familiar scent, the one that always takes me back to the apartment in Rio de Janeiro, where my mother and I stayed with an older lady who rented a room to us when we visited.

That rich rose scent brings back memories from my time in Rio: the green and blue tile on the bathroom floor and walls, the vent window in the air shaft, the view from the balcony outside our room, the smell of that luscious coffee in the morning and the scalded milk poured atop it, as well as the crusty bread and soft white cheese that our host served at each breakfast. Once I start to remember those things, many other memories tumble forth, making me smile as I recall the two weeks-long visits to Brazil, which were among the best times with my mother, and the most interesting days of my youth.

Thanks to the friend who sent the generous and meaningful gift, I feel both rich and young.

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Guest blogger Linda Johnston – Women’s History

Linda Johnston is today’s guest blogger from Write by the Rails – the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club‘s Endless Blog Tour 2014.  In the coming weeks, you will find here posts from additional guests. Enjoy!

Pub photo 2 copyThank you, Shay, for letting me be your guest today.  Today I am writing the second in a series of blog posts for Women’s History Month.

In researching my book on Kansas, I came across many wonderful historic tidbits, like the original documents from the founding of the Moneka Women’s Rights Association.

Boasting forty-two members from a population of two hundred, the Moneka Women’s Rights Assocation of Moneka, Kansas Territory, committed themselves early on to fight for equality for women. Chartered in February 1858, the group organized themselves in a town that had itself been founded in Linn County in eastern Kansas just the previous year. The group included several male members. The dedication of the membership to their cause showed the character of a community still struggling to provide the basics for its citizens.

Here are words from the Association’s Preamble:

Because, Woman is constituted of body and mind and has all the common wants of the one and the natural powers of the other

Because she is a progressive being ever out-growing the past and demanding a higher and greater future – or in other words,

Because she is a Human Being and as such is endowed by her Creator with the full measure of human rights whether educational, social or political . . .” 

The group petitioned the Territorial legislature to enact laws to protect women’s rights, including a woman’s right to retain any property that she possessed before marriage and a woman’s right to a “just proportion of the joint property of the husband and wife acquired during marriage.

One of the Association’s credos, adopted at the February 27, 1858 meeting, read:

Whereas women can not vote and yet feel the necessity of just laws, therefore Res. that every woman in Kansas who believes that equal rights belong to women should consider herself a committee of one whose duty it is to do all in her power to convert to her views at least one legal voter. 

Those legal voters to be targeted? Men, the only legal voters.

National Women’s History Month brings attention to many prominent women in our history. But let us not forget groups like the Moneka Women’s Rights Association who played an important part in the struggle for women’s equality.

Writer and artist Linda S. Johnston enjoys combining history, art, and nature in her writing.  She began reading reading pioneer diaries in 1986 and never stopped.  Her first book Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory, is a collection of pioneer writings about the happy side of life in early Kansas and includes watercolor sketches throughout.  To learn more about Linda and her writing, please visit

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Gaming for Sanity – Guest blogger Tee Morris

Tee Morris is today’s guest blogger from Write by the Rails – the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club‘s Endless Blog Tour 2014.  In the coming weeks, you will find here posts from additional guests. Enjoy!

Gaming for Sanity

By Tee Morris

IMG_9026I’ve been (sorta) tight-lipped about my year up to this point. I know, it’s only March; and I had made a pledge not to allow a single event define the year for me. It’s a little frustrating, though, how that single event has directly affected Pip’s and my life. What has been a real blessing are the people in our lives who set aside to to game. Be it a board game, a card game, or a role playing game, friends who take the time to game—something that adults seem to lose touch with during their teen years—find a moment’s peace when things are rough.

Two such friends, Chooch and Viv, came over one Sunday night for dinner and “grown-up” time. What we got that night was a lot more than any of us could have expected.

Chooch and Viv, being the thoughtful people they are, brought with them something for dinner. What they brought was better than a bottle of wine or a four-pack of Dogfish Beer. They had brought with them a bag of games. The games were varied, but one I knew on first glance—Cards Against Humanity. If you’re not familiar with this game, here are three things you need to keep in mind about it:

1.    The more people playing, the wackier it is.

2.    If you are easily offended, you will want to brace yourself.

3.    No one is safe.

photo-2As far as gameplay, you have two kinds of cards: Questions (black) and Answers (white). The questions are pretty “pedestrian” in nature, a bit like the 1970’s classic game show, Match Game, where questions would be open-ended, allowing a player to play one or two of their answer cards. Sounds pretty safe so far, right?

It’s when you get to the Answers cards where you spiral down to the deepest, darkest depths of your soul. What is found on the White cards range from the random to the explicit to Did you just go there?! (Please refer to #3 of “Three things you need to know”…)

What occurred straight out of the box was the absurd, the disgraceful, and the inconceivable. What also happened during gameplay was laughter. Glorious, uninhibited,  therapeutic laughter. There were rounds when I snorted. There were rounds that my eyes ached. There were rounds I thought I was going to hyperventilate. And in most of the cases, it wasn’t the shocking answers that got me, but the idiotic and slightly puerile that had me on the floor.

Then, somewhere in the point of the evening, I asked myself How long has it been since Ive laughed like this? Looking at everyone else, it dawned on me that in playing Cards Against Humanity, you really don’t play this game to win. You’re sitting around a table with friends, laughing yourself silly. Pretty much, you are winning from the first round to the last. That’s what we were doing last night, and by its end we were all tired but lighter, perhaps the lightest we have felt in a long time.

And then Pip, without any sort of prompting, said, Its going to be okay. All four of us believed that, and still do.

Whether you are playing something as inappropriate as Cards Against Humanity, or something more thoughtful like Dixit (one we were introduced to), or a game of strategy like Ticket to Ride (one we want to introduce to Chooch and Viv), find the time to game. Yes, we were tweeting and posting photos from the various games, but we were for the most part unplugged, connecting with each other, and allowing ourselves some time to relax.

And in the case of Cards Against Humanity, just laugh the stress away.

It’s not a bad thing, taking a little bit of time out of the week with friends or family to enjoy a night off the grid, getting social around a game you know or one you’ve wanted to get to know. Does it solve the problems? No. Gaming does give you a hard reminder of what truly matters, and what will get you through harder times.

So game on, everybody. Looking at everything falling down around us, perhaps a timeout to game is in order. We have definitely earned it.

What about you? What are your favorite kind of games with friends? What was the last game you played?

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 3.48.41 PMTee Morris has been writing adventures in far-off lands and far-off worlds since elementary school. Inspired by numerous Choose Your Own Adventure titles and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, he wrote not-so-short short stories of his own, unaware that working on a typewriter when sick-from-school and, later, on a computer (which was a lot quieter…that meant more time to write at night…) would pave a way for his writings.

Tee has now returned to writing fiction with The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, written with his wife, Pip Ballantine. Their first title in the series, Phoenix Rising, won the 2011 Airship Award for Best in Steampunk Literature, while both Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair were finalists in Goodreads Best in Science Fiction of 2011 and 2012. In 2013 Tee and Pip released Ministry Protocol, an original anthology of short stories set in the Ministry universe. Now in 2014, following a Parsec win for their companion podcast, Tales from the Archives, Tee and Pip celebrate the arrival of their third book, Dawn’s Early Light. When Tee is not creating something on his Macintosh, he enjoys a good run, a good swim, and putting together new playlists to write by. His other hobbies include cigars and scotch, which he regards the same way as anime and graphic novels: “I don’t know everything about them, but I know what I like.” (And he likes Avo and Arturo Fuente for his smoke, Highland Park for his scotch!) He enjoys life in Virginia alongside Pip, his daughter, and three cats.


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Front page news: Police neutralize active shooter during exercise scenario

P1070225Imagine sprinting in front of a team of storming federal police, the sound of gunshots echoing in the darkened hallway, the air thick with the smell of gunpowder, and  bloody “victims” screaming and running the other way. I found myself in exactly that place, after being invited to witness and write about an active shooter exercise at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling in Southeast Washington, DC.

The “incident” gave me a fleeting taste of the fear and disorientation invoked by a genuine situation. The scenario was so realistic that I kept feeling the urge to offer assistance to the people who were role playing the shooter’s victims.

As if a ghost in the scene, I stood to the side and watched the federal police subdue the man who played the role of shooter, and observed how they determined whether there was a second shooter as they secured the building. Afterward, I saw the EMTs arrive and take one of the “bloody” victims away by ambulance.

This was a fascinating and exciting experience, a glimpse into one of the innumerable ways that the US military constantly works to keep our bases safe. The article I wrote about it has been published on the front page of the Joint Base Journal. Read it online and see some of the action shots here: Police Neutralize Active Shooter During Exercise Scenario.

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My favourite tool – Guest blogger Pip Ballantine

Pip Ballantine is my tenth guest blogger from Write by the Rails – the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club‘s Endless Blog Tour 2014.  In the coming weeks, you will find here posts from additional guests. Enjoy!

My favourite tool

By Pip Ballantine

scrivener_screenshotAll kinds of jobs have all kinds of tools. Carpenters have hammers and saws. Seamstresses have threads and sewing machines. But what do poor ole writers have?

For the longest time it was Microsoft Word. That was it.

It is fine for writing in an office setting, but when you are working on a novel it is rather clunky. Moving long piece of text around is a tedious process of Cut and Paste. You have to have multiple files for everything which you have to flip between.

So when I discovered Scrivener it was a case of love at first sight.

Developed specifically for writers back in 2006, and it has a myriad of features that make my life much easier.

It isn’t even all that expensive ($US45 for Mac and $US40 for PC). You can find it at

It isn’t just about the writing—it is a program for organising your writing project. There is a main writing window, but on the left hand side are folders for organising your work.

There are so many wonderful features of Scrivener it’s hard to talk about them all, so I will just settle for the ones I use the most.

Outside of the main writing window, everything is organised with notecards—the digital equivalent of the ones writers use to plot or make notes on. It gives Scrivener a very familiar feel and makes it pretty easy to handle.

Since I write steampunk and fantasy, on the left I have folders with notecards for characters, settings, magic. On each one you can import images. For example in my character folder each character has an image of what I think they look like. It’s easy to use images you run across on the internet in this way, and makes for a quick touchstone reminder as you are writing.

Also on the left hand side I have my references which are very important.

When I do history I particularly like the ability to import in webpages that are references and having them on hand—even should the webpage I am using change or disappear I will still have what I need within Scrivener. It’s like magic!

Each chapter I am working on appears in this left hand line of files too. This means I can color code them, mark them as in progress or done, and easily shuffle them around if I want to move scenes. (So much easier than in Word!)

Then when you are done you can compile your work into a huge variety of formats to share with your editor, your friends, or the world. Yep, Scrivener will compile your book right into epub format!

I haven’t used it in this way but I also hear it is great for screenwriters as well.

Writers don’t get too many tools, but without this one I would be lost. You can try Scrivener free for 30 days, and I would highly recommend you do so. It has certainly made my life a lot easier, and I am onto eighth book written using it.

Thanks to Shay for hosting it on her site. Don’t forget to check out Write by the Rails, which is full of a diverse range of amazing writers. You can find out more about our steampunk series the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences at our site, and me here.

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