Every March for the past five or six years, I have made the long (especially long now that I live in western Tennessee) trip to Frankfort, Kentucky, to pick up The Box. In doing so, I commit myself to reading portions of nigh on 2000 applications from high school juniors all over the state who hope to attend the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program, a prestigious summer program that all but guarantees those who get in full-tuition scholarships at a number of colleges and universities around the Bluegrass.

The process for applying to GSP is lengthy and competitive. Students are evaluated on a number of criteria including grade point average, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, honors and awards, teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, and an essay. Applicants must also write a short piece describing an experience or interest that is unique to them and sets them apart from their peers. Applications are judged at the school level, the district level, and then are passed onto us, the Statewide Selection Committee, where we make the final decisions and snide remarks about the typical entries we receive.

This year’s incarnation of The Box is very similar to every other year’s. A cardboard banker’s box, roughly two feet long, packed solid from one end to the other with applications in bundles of 100, and a few bundles on top. This year, thanks to a change in the scoring system, I have taken up again the “Uniques” while keeping my usual batch of Honors/Awards. I see no names–anonymity being key to fair judging–and that’s a damn good thing. As bad as some of these things are this year, I’d be tempted to call some of these students and asked them, “Who the hell are you kidding?” The majority of these are the written equivalent of a rabies vaccination.

Anyway, I’ll write more on this topic later on, including an open letter I am planning to all future applicants to the program. For now, I have nearly 1600 more applications to pour through by the 24th without giving in to the desire to shoot myself.

There are a lot of yardsticks you can use to decide when you have, in fact, passed over into being old. No one wants to think they are past their physical prime, but it sneaks up on you, an irrevocable tide of aches and pains and little sources of embarrassment. It may start with a few gray hairs (or a lot of gray hairs), a worsening of the eyesight, or the dreaded middle age spread. Still, I think I have found the true test of when one leaves youth and passes into maturity and that is music.

When I was younger, I used to keep up with all the current music. I slogged through the days of hair bands and boy bands, grunge and techno, new wave and everything else that came down the pike. I was like Forrest Gump, running running running to keep up with all that was new. I may not have liked it all, but I usually knew what it was.

But, also like Forrest Gump, I reached the point where I was tired and didn’t want to run anymore. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point I turned my back on the hip, the trendy, and the current in music, looked around, and decided I was going to backtrack for a while. Whereas I used to listen to all the Top 40 stations and such, keeping track of the Billboard lists, now I mostly listen to stuff so old that I can’t even remember when it was new. A good deal of it is older than me and the sad part is that the more of it I listen to, the more I like it. I’m barely into my thirties and listening to the same music my parents used to listen to when they were my age. Elton John, Bob Seger, and, of course, the Beatles have replaced . . . well, whoever is making hits today. If I look up who won Grammys this year, I don’t even recognize half the names and far less than half the music that won. And the Grammys are chosen mostly by people older than me who have no taste in music. Oh, sweet Jesus, what have I become?

And, to make matters worse, I’ve become a big fan of classical music, particularly while I’m writing. So, not only am I listening to music from before my birth, I’m listening to music from before the birth of the United friggin’ States of America. And jazz. And Spanish guitar. Spanish guitar? What the hell is up with that? I believe that you can tell a lot about people by the music they listen to, but I am clueless as to what my musical tastes say about me. Somewhere along the way, I reached a point in my musical journey where I surveyed the landscape around me and said, “No, no thank you, I’ve gone far enough.”

Oh, well. Screw Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse.

Anyway, despite my recent failings as a wanna-be novelist, I’m about to take two weeks off (mostly) from writing to perform my annual labor of love–scoring applications for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholar Program. Two weeks. Almost 2000 applications. Lots of eye strain. Still, it’s the least I can do in exchange for five of the best weeks of my life. I still have two short stories out on submission and I hope to submit The Dead and the Dying to two more agents in the next couple of weeks once I get the query letters down. Maybe some other short story idea will hit me while I’m traveling over the next few days.

Today is an unofficial national day of mourning for anyone who has ever rolled a d20. Gary Gygax, one of the founding fathers of Dungeons and Dragons, has died at age 69.

I began playing D&D at the ripe old age of five. Caught up in the enthusiasm of my uncle, I created my first character, a thief/assassin because even then, way before I would write about evil wizards, psychotic vampires, and homicidal trees, I thought the idea of killing people and taking their stuff was high entertainment. Little did I realize that my character would live on far beyond even my wildest expectations and would set me on the road to some of the most valuable lessons of my life.

Growing up among friends consumed by sports and television, role playing remained my secret obsession for a long time. I would go out and play shortstop in a little league game, maybe play a pickup game at point guard, but then I would hide out in my room, flipping the well-worn pages of my original AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook. It wasn’t until middle school that I discovered that other people were also interested in role playing and those of us who preferred spending our time as elves and halflings gravitated together, united by a friendship held together by the rolls of funny-looking dice.

My core group of friends throughout high school consisted mostly of six to eight guys (depending on who was fortunate enough to be dating at the time) who spent damn near every free moment playing D&D. One campaign that started our freshman year lasted until the summer following graduation and, even then, was merely put on hiatus until one fateful day in the future when we might all get together again and spend one more evening banishing the forces of evil. We all enjoyed each other’s company and were mostly oblivious to the skills we were developing between handfuls of peanut butter M&M’s and scoops of cheese dip. Problem-solving, conflict resolution (there was a LOT of conflict, mostly between us players), quick decision making–all these and more were enhanced by our portrayals of wizards and knights, rangers and clerics, thieves and kings. Like most things in high school, it wasn’t until we were far removed from that environment that we realized how we had benefited from sharing those times.

I, like so many others who still love the fantasy fiction we gobbled up in between role playing sessions, scavenging for ideas, owe a tremendous debt to Gary Gygax. By stepping beyond the traditional board game, by understanding that we have enough imagination to hold the entire contents of the game between our ears, he transformed us and began a new generation of teens and young adults who found escape in something other than drugs and alcohol. Far from the geek breeding ground that has become its reputation, D&D paved the way for millions of people now in the workforce to think independently and use their imaginations to accomplish their dreams. This is especially true for many fantasy writers, who owe as much to Gygax as to Tolkien and Lewis.

The loss of Gary Gygax is a loss to imagination as a whole and he will be missed by many who never even met him. It’s as though the suns and moons on whatever worlds we have created are shining a bit less tonight.

And as for my thief/assassin? He’s still around, living a nice life of quiet solitude, still flipping through that old Player’s Handbook. Every once in a while, he chuckles to himself and says a silent thank you to Gary Gygax for his very existence.

The prodigal blogger returns! I realize that I’ve been a naughty little blogger lately, this being my first post in a month, but since no one is actually reading it right now, I guess it doesn’t really matter. Should I draw an audience later on, maybe no one will notice.

To start off, I’ve seen a great deal of speculation on the internet about why Dan Brown has not been more forthcoming about the release of his next Robert Langdon novel, tentatively titled The Solomon Key. Following his unprecedented success with The Da Vinci Code, Brown has spent several years researching his follow-up work which, he says, will be set in the United States and center around conspiracies involving the Founding Fathers of our country. Many people, growing impatient for that next blockbuster, have criticized Brown for not getting on the ball and giving them the story they so desperately want, and my response to these critics is this:

Leave the man alone.

We as the reading public have become so spoiled by such prolific authors as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, and others that we expect any successful author to put out a book a year or so. Forget that Brown’s work requires extensive research that these other authors don’t need. Forget that stories of such complexity and historical reference are a bitch to write and take a great deal of time to get right. Forget all of that and be thankful that the man is working on another book at all. It would be very easy for him to take his ball (read Robert Langdon) and go home. Thanks to the success of The DaVinci Code and the residual success of his other books, Dan Brown has more money than probably all the authors at your favorite con combined. He is not obligated to write another damn word for the reading public who so ooh’d and aah’d over his other works. He could very easily take the Harper Lee or J. D. Salinger route and hole up in his New England home, bathing in cash, and laughing at all the people waiting to see what happens next to Professor Langdon. We should be thankful that he is writing and, in my opinion, whenever he decides to finish the book and get it out to us is fine with me. I want to read it just as much as the next person, but I’m willing to wait. What choice do I have, really?

There was another book that enjoyed even more success than The DaVinci Code, a little book a few people have read called The Bible. It’s been nearly 2000 years since that one came out and no one is clamoring for a sequel to it, are they?

Trust that Dan Brown knows what he is doing and leave him alone.

As for my own writing, I have been mercilessly delayed in recent weeks by various factors, including a severe case of the flu that resulted in my first missed day of work in almost 8 years. Still, I have managed a little bit, including a new short story–“The Visible Man”–that is currently on submission to Spinetingler Magazine. I have also rewritten another short story–“The Hangin’ Tree”–that was lost in the Old Computer Tragedy of last year. This new version is about 1400 words shorter and, thanks in no small part to that compaction, much better. Work on the new novel continues, slowly, but steadily. My status stands thusly:

In addition, I started another novel that I hope to work on after I finish the current project. I wanted to get a bit down just to see how it felt and if I thought it would be worth pursuing. I think it is and, based on what I’m reading on the various industry blogs I follow, there should be a market for it if I can get it done and edited in time.

Finally, submission of The Dead and Dying continues at a snail’s pace. I am planning on submitting to another agent this weekend, but I want to make sure my query letter is exactly like I want it before I shoot it to her. Hopefully, I’ll at least get a partial request, something to validate what I’m doing. Hopefully.