Writers (and everyone else), backup your work!

When I worked in computer repair, a client once asked a colleague of mine, “Should I back up my data?”

“Well, that depends,” my colleague replied. “How valuable is your data?” The client’s eyes widened in horror. He needed to start backing up his data now!

WhereIsMyFile
My file is gone!
(Photo by StartUpStockPhotos, licensed under CC0.)

Last week, I realized I had lost an entire chapter of my work-in-progress novel. I was working on chapter 21 in Scrivener, and when I flipped back to chapter 17 to check something, I found the text of chapter 19 where chapter 17 should have been. In chapter 19 was an older, unedited version of chapter 19. Chapter 17 was gone!

I know exactly how the problem happened (it was user error), but this article isn’t about the cause. It’s about the solution. It took me less than five minutes to restore my missing chapter and get back to writing.

My work is valuable. Therefore, I back it up. Here’s how I do it.

(Note: I use Windows-based computers, but these concepts can easily be applied to other computer technologies.)

My Backup
Ignore the “Documents” sub-folder of your home folder. The go-to place to save your important files is the “OneDrive” sub-folder. My essential files — like my novel’s Scrivener files — are saved to the local copy of my Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage account, so every time I save the file, it is backed up to the Internet. Besides an instant backup, this also makes it very easy to start working on either my desktop or my laptop, wherever I happen to be at the time. Alternatives to OneDrive include Dropbox.

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save. Easy to restore all your files to a new computer. Easy to work from anywhere, even via a web browser for certain file types. OneDrive is free for limited space and reasonably priced for additional storage.

Limitations: If you accidentally save a file full of “lorem ipsum” instead of your document, your file full of “lorem ipsum” will be uploaded to the cloud. If you accidentally delete a file, it is deleted from your OneDrive per Microsoft’s retention policies.

The Backup of My Backup
I take a “belt and suspenders” approach to backups. One backup is not enough. My backup needs a backup. A chief reason for this is the limitation mentioned above: an automatic to-the-cloud backup will happily backup your mistakes. What happens when you realize what you need is the version from four saves ago?

 

Carbonite
Carbonite’s Windows Explorer interface for recovery of past file versions.

That’s why I subscribe to Carbonite. All of my desktop computer’s files are automatically backed up to the cloud, including different versions of the same files. This is the line of defense that saved my missing chapter. While OneDrive had the incorrect version of my problem chapter, the version I’d accidentally destroyed was available via Carbonite. I restored it from my cloud-based backup, and my work was back.

 

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save, including past versions of the same file.

Limitations: Carbonite is designed for disaster recovery, not for easy access to the same files between multiple machines. Also, there are retention policies set by Carbonite for both still-existing and deleted files.

(And yes, Carbonite’s name is a Star Wars reference.)

Returning to any past point
If you’ve implemented my suggestions to this point, you have a backup and a backup of your backup. Your data is now extremely well-defended against disaster. You are in the top 1% of data protection. And it might be enough. However, if you need an even more granular way to go back in time to specific versions of files, even the “belt and suspenders” approach might be lacking.

Specific to writing, if you use Scrivener, you ought to be taking snapshots. Snapshots are a feature of Scrivener in which a point-in-time copy of a document is taken and is always available in a read-only state. It’s a no-brainer to take a snapshot of every chapter of your book at the end of each significant draft. You might also want to take a snapshot before making a particularly brutal round of edits, or before revising the entire chapter from the start. I won’t go into the details of how to take a snapshot, but there are plenty of articles on the subject available.

Finally, in the software engineering world, we use version control systems (VCS) to store our code. Every distinct version of a code file is checked into VCS, and therefore any distinct version can be retrieved from it. Different versions from any two time periods can be compared. A version from two years ago can be recovered as quickly as a version from two hours ago (so long as someone deliberately checked in the changes; committing a new version to source control is not an automatic operation).

Best of all, when combined with the “belt and suspenders” approach, the database containing all your version history can exist in multiple places and with multiple backups — or can be stored in a cloud-based VCS provider (like GitHub) that can handle redundant backups for you. And there really is no retention policy, so long as you have enough storage to hold all the past versions you wish to keep.

The limitation of this system is its complexity. If you’re not already familiar with it, there is a learning curve, and it could be steep. Also, VCS may be overkill for most writers. But if you absolutely need to be able to go back to any daily (or hourly!) version of your work from now until forever, storing your writing in Git or another VCS is probably your most flexible option.

No backup isn’t an option
Stop and ask yourself: if your laptop’s hard drive died right now, how much work would you lose? What would be your next step? Would you just need to sign in to a different computer and resume typing? Or would it be time to drink, cry, and bargain with God?

It’s easy to ignore creating a backup strategy because, much like life insurance, it’s something that can be a bit of a hassle to get setup, especially for something you hope you’ll never have to use. But someday, when Future You needs that backup, they’ll be really happy you took the time. Your work is valuable. Make sure it’s resilient to disaster.

(Note: I received no compensation of any kind from Microsoft, Carbonite, or any other company for mentioning their product in this article.)

2017 in Review: Reading, Movies, and TV

HenryBemis
Time enough at last!

Welcome to the 2017 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, in which I reflect on the media I consumed over the last 365 days.

Books
I read 23 books last year.

  1. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
  2. Arena Mode by Blake Northcott
  3. The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe
  4. Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George
  5. Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson
  6. Ones and Zeroes by Dan Wells
  7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  8. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  9. Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls by Raymond Arroyo
  10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle
  11. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  12. Railsea by China Mieville
  13. A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
  14. The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
  15. Prototype D by Jason D. Morrow
  16. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  17. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  18. Between the Shadow and Lo by Lauren Sapala
  19. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  20. Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders by Raymond Arroyo
  21. Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson
  22. Fairy Keeper (World of Aluvia Book 1) by Amy Bearce
  23. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The list would be longer, except near the end of November, I began reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. And it is a Very Long Book.

Going into the year, I was especially excited for Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson and Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George, as each is the conclusion of a series I’ve much enjoyed. And I liked both of those books, too, but neither one was my favorite in its series.

My two favorites were The Night Circus and When You Reach Me. Both are really unique takes on common fantasy elements — magic and time travel, respectively — and I thoroughly enjoyed both.

Ones and Zeroes and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre were reminders of why Dan Wells and Gail Carson Levine are two of my favorite authors. I’m at the point where I’ll buy any new book from either of them based solely on the byline.

Perhaps the most unlikely-for-me book on the list is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, but it is one of the books that has stuck with me the longest. It might be the only one on the list this year that caused me to stay up way past my bedtime reading. Months later, I still remember specific scenes, and I’ve adopted some of Cather Avery’s phrases into my personal vocabulary. I adored that book.

Movies
I made it to a movie theater four times this year! That might be the most in-theater movies I’ve seen in a year since I was a teenager. Of the four, my favorites were Justice League and Wonder Woman. I really couldn’t pick one favorite between the two of them. Wonder Woman is undoubtedly the tighter, better-focused story, but the sheer fun factor of Justice League makes it equal. Plus, Justice League featured Superman giving The Flash a super-speed side-eye:

SupermanSeesTheFlash

The other two movies I saw were Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t leave the theater dissatisfied a single time.

TV
I wasn’t crazy about The Flash season 3, which I watched on Netflix. Savitar, Killer Frost, Doctor Alchemy… all of those aspects of the show were just OK or boring to me. But HR Wells was a gift to humanity. By far, he was the best Wells the show has featured yet. And the first half of season 4, which I’ve been watching every week on The CW? Amazing. The Thinker is the best villain the show has had since Reverse-Flash, and maybe better. This could be the best season yet.

Supergirl season 2 was good, but nothing like season 1. We finally got to see Superman, but we lost Cat Grant, at least for much of the season. And while Guardian is pretty cool, I think the writers have no idea what to do with Jimmy Olson anymore. I like Lena Luthor, though, and I’m glad she’s gotten a bigger role in season 3. But that’s about all the good I can say about the first half of season 3. It’s been OK. But Reign just doesn’t do much for me as a Big Bad. And why does Kara have to spend the season all mopey? Living Ray of Sunshine Kara is always the best part of Supergirl, along with the Danvers sisterhood.

Hey, here’s a game I play when watching Supergirl. See if you can spot all the times some kind of lame excuse is used to explain why Martian Manhunter can’t use one of his powers when that power would solve the current problem in seconds. “Darn, I can’t read their minds — they must have some kind of psychic shield!” “Would you look at that, I can’t phase through that wall for some reason. We’ll have to find another way in.”

The Crown season 1 was really great. Every episode left me eager to discuss it and to read Wikipedia articles about the real-life subjects. What I’ve seen so far of season 2 is equally good. Voltron seasons 3 and 4 were both excellent, but I wish they’d just kept them a single season. I especially loved the flashbacks to the creation of the lions and the original Alfor-led Voltron Force.

Stranger Things 2 is not on this list because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch it yet.

Looking Ahead
In 2018, the novel I’m most looking forward to is book 3 in Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory. In TV, I can’t get enough of The Flash season 4. I can’t wait to see how Barry’s fight against The Thinker ends… and at this point, The Thinker’s ultimate goal hasn’t even been revealed yet!

There is no movie I am more looking forward to than Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.

It’s going to be a great year for people who like stories. Lord, please don’t let me break my glasses.

The season of hope

 

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Photo by Garrett Anderson on Unsplash

It’s the Christmas season, the season of hope. Around this time last year, when I finished the first draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the sequel to Yesterday’s Demons, I mentioned how grateful I was to finish it at this time of year because hope is the book’s theme. It’s now one year and one draft later. I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking about hope, and I have some observations.

 

The three theological virtues, famously mentioned by St. Paul in the beautiful 1 Corinthians 13, are faith, hope, and love. “Everybody, everybody wants to love, and everybody, everybody wants to be loved,” as Ingrid Michaelson sings. I think faith is equally well understood. But I consider hope to be the most often confused theological virtue.

The Christian definition of faith is the belief in the truths God has revealed based solely on a personal decision to believe them. In a wider, more casual sense, it’s the belief in something despite a lack of physical evidence. The theological meaning of hope, on the other hand, is confidence in eternal life; its “pop culture” definition is, “I have no proof XYZ will happen, but I believe it will.”

Hope is sometimes incorrectly labeled as faith. “I have faith my team will win the championship!” No, you don’t. You hope your team will win the championship. This is a common confusion. Faith is a belief in past things you can’t see. Hope is the belief a certain future event will occur.

The most romantic of the three theological virtues is… well, it’s love, of course. But hope is a close second! Hope is at the very core of a lot of epic stories. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is a living embodiment of Middle-earth’s hope for peace. Luke Skywalker is the embodiment of hope in Star Wars, and Rogue One teaches us rebellions are built on hope.

One of my favorite hopeful moments from any story is the ending of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Wish.” Cordelia’s wish for a Buffy-free world takes her to an alternate Sunnydale overrun with vampires. When Giles discovers Anya’s necklace is the talisman responsible for that dark world, he prepares to smash it.

Anya: “You trusting fool! How do you know the other world is any better than this?”
Giles: “Because it has to be.”

The opposite of hope is despair. And that brings me to my final observation. This world needs a lot more hope. We seem far more inclined to despair than to hope, and that’s sad.

I see this all the time in politics. I remember a co-worker in the early 2000s declared George W. Bush to be the worst President ever – “the worst!” I haven’t talked to that guy in some time, but I reckon since November 2016, he has a new candidate in mind for the “worst President ever” award, if you know what I mean. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who despair. Look at how many Republicans didn’t simply consider Barack Obama a President they disagreed with, but a President who was actively trying to destroy America.

Living in despair is no way to live. I’m not saying the injustices and challenges of the world should be ignored, but we should never see them as permanent or insurmountable. We should not despair, especially in this final week of the year.

This is the season of Christmas. This is the season of hope.

“Call Me Walt,” Part 2

Walt_Disney_Snow_white_1937_trailer_screenshot_(13)
Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

Sharon is a recent college graduate who spends her work week at the lab and her weekends at Disneyland. She didn’t think her favorite place in the world could get any more magical, but that was before Walt Disney himself began spending every Disneyland Sunday with her. Only Sharon can tell that it’s him, and their time together is nothing but wonder, until Walt tells her she has a wish she’s not ready to make. What’s the real reason Walt befriended her?

“Call Me Walt” is my love letter to Disneyland and to the extraordinary man who created it. Part one was published last week. This is the conclusion of the story, published in celebration of this 116th anniversary of Walt’s birth.


Sharon watched Frontierland go by from her seat on the Disneyland Railroad. It was almost time for ice cream, but she was not in the mood for ice cream.

“Are we getting off at the Tomorrowland station?” Walt asked. “Or the next time we get to Main Street? Or shall we begin a third grand circle tour around the magic kingdom?”

The railroad chugged past the waterfalls. The secret entrance to the cave where they stored the floats for Fantasmic! was obvious if you knew where to look. And Sharon knew where to look. But she didn’t look.

When the train resumed after a brief stop at the Tomorrowland station, Walt folded his arms across the lapels of his suit. “If you leave what we do entirely up to me, I’ll tell you right now, we’re going to ride my railroad. A lot.”

“I read about Snow White,” Sharon said.

Walt raised one eyebrow. She speaks, at last.

“The first feature-length animated motion picture in history,” she said.

Walt nodded. His smile carried a wisp of pride. “You have seen it, haven’t you?”

“No one had ever made an animated feature before it,” she said. “What made you want to try?”

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” Walt said.

That cracked through Sharon’s malaise enough to make her smile.

“We were doing well with the Silly Symphonies and, of course, with Mickey,” Walt said. “But I knew we could do so much more. Took us a long time to get it right, though. Boy, we broke that story so many times. Went back and forth on what the Evil Queen should be like. And I don’t remember how many sets of seven dwarf names we went through.”

“Did they really call it Disney’s Folly?”

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“Call Me Walt,” Part 1

Walt_disney_portrait
Photo by NASA, public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.

Sharon is a recent college graduate who spends her work week at the lab and her weekends at Disneyland. She didn’t think her favorite place in the world could get any more magical until the day she meets a man who sounds like Walt Disney and who looks like Walt Disney because he is Walt Disney. Sharon thinks the one thing she wants more than anything is the one thing she can never have. Can Walt teach her that at Disneyland, dreams really do come true?

“Call Me Walt” is my love letter to Disneyland and to the extraordinary man who created it. This is part one. The conclusion of the story will be published in one week, on December 5, the 116th anniversary of Walt’s birth.


The first thing Sharon bought with her first paycheck from her first real, post-college job was an annual pass to Disneyland.

Monday was work, Tuesday was work, Wednesday was work. Thursday was lots of work because the senior chemists enjoyed dumping grunt work onto a junior at 3:00 so they could be done for the week. Sharon spent Friday catching up after the Thursday pile-on, which made the day long, but mostly quiet. She picked up her Friday night feast of pho and french fries on the way home, then went out with friends. She’d only been in Irvine a short time, but she’d already made a decent-sized social circle. Being good at meeting new people and bad at being alone was a powerful combo. Saturday she took care of any chores that needed to get done, bought the groceries, and went to bed early because Sunday was Disneyland day.

She would wake up early and drive up to Anaheim. St. Justin Martyr had a 6:45 AM Mass which never lasted more than an hour. An adorable couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lester, had sort-of adopted her, and she sat with them every Sunday. They told her she felt like another daughter to them. They reminded Sharon of Carl and Ellie, with fewer balloons.

After Mass, it was a five-minute drive down Ball Road to the Mickey and Friends parking garage. Most days, she was on the first tram over to the parks. She’d pass through the gates, walk under the train trestle, and smile at the plaque above her which read, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” And once she got a glimpse of Sleeping Beauty Castle at the end of Main Street USA, she’d breathe a sigh of relief and say a prayer of thanks for having made it back one more time.

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Some thoughts on the financial well-being of STAR Labs employees

I don’t ask for a lot of believability in stories. I don’t mind that the Death Star makes a loud BOOM when it explodes in the middle of soundless outer space. I prefer violence in TV and film to be bloodless, even when really sharp blades are involved. Show me a hero standing in the middle of a hailstorm of bullets and not receiving so much as a scratch and I won’t have a problem with it. But there’s one aspect of my favorite currently running TV show, The Flash, that tests my willingness to suspend disbelief every time I think of it.

How in the multiverse are Cisco Ramon and Caitlin Snow paying their bills?

CaitlinAndCisco

The Flash himself, Barry Allen, collects a paycheck from the Central City Police Department, where he works as a CSI. Iris West is a reporter. Detective Joe West, like Barry, is on the police payroll. They’re all financially secure.

But Cisco and Caitlin worked at STAR Labs for Dr. Harrison Wells at the time the lab’s particle accelerator exploded. It was established in numerous season one episodes that while Wells secretly planned this “disaster,” most of the world considered it a terrible accident. The incident left STAR Labs and Dr. Wells disgraced. Things were so bad, the STAR Labs building was never fully repaired, and it was declared a hazardous site. Four years later, it still features a visibly damaged exterior.

The financial fallout of the particle accelerator explosion – read: negligence lawsuits – should have sent STAR Labs into Chapter 11. If I remember correctly, the pilot episode said the company was headed towards bankruptcy. But on a more human level, Cisco and Caitlin refused to abandon Dr. Wells after the accident. They continued to work at STAR Labs, and they were part of the team that helped Barry discover and hone his speedster abilities. While this is a heartwarming display of loyalty, they still need to eat. How was STAR Labs bringing in enough money to pay their (not insignificant) mechanical and biological engineer salaries?

Idea 1:
Dr. Wells was secretly Eobard “Reverse Flash” Thawne, a super-villain from the future. Knowing exactly what kind of legal and financial trouble STAR Labs would find itself in post-explosion, he put lots of money away in legally sheltered funds. This allowed him to pay for electricity and pay the salaries of Cisco and Caitlin.

That could work, but at the end of season one, Wells was defeated, and he bequeathed STAR Labs to Barry Allen. How does the money keep coming in, post-Wells?

Idea 2:
Dr. Wells also left Barry all of his money, so after Wells’s death, business went on uninterrupted.

My problem with this idea is that I doubt Barry’s moral compass would allow him to keep and spend Wells’s probably illegally obtained cash. He’d take STAR Labs because it was the place from which he and his friends defend Central City. But he’d want a way to keep it financially viable independent of Wells’s shady funds.

Idea 3:
Barry’s rich friend, Oliver Queen, could foot the bill to keep STAR Labs running after Wells’s death.

Could be. But, while I don’t watch Arrow, my understanding is Ollie has lost most of his money. Isn’t Felicity Smoak also rich though, too? A big strike against this idea is that in season three when Barry offers the use of a STAR Labs hangar (that looked a lot like the Hall of Justice) to his team, Team Arrow, the Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, he says he owns the facility. If Ollie or Felicity was bankrolling STAR Labs, wouldn’t they now own it? Considering they were both present when Barry said he owned it, wouldn’t they have corrected him?

Besides, STAR Labs being bankrolled by someone from Team Arrow seems to me like something too big to not mention. Then again, I may be the only person crazy enough to be bothered by this. (Or not!)

Idea 4:
STAR Labs is bankrolled by Bruce Wayne.

We now know he does exist in Earth-1 of the CW DC Universe!

Idea 5:
Cisco and Caitlin live off income from some sweet patents they own.

They’re both geniuses. They’ve both invented new tech to help Barry defeat a criminal metahuman multiple times. And I’m confident they’re smart enough to monetize those inventions. But if this is the case, then in early season two, when Barry temporarily shut down Team Flash, why did Caitlin go work for Mercury Labs? Was it just because she loves her job that much? Or did she have bills to pay? And of course, while this would explain how Cisco and Caitlin get their money, it wouldn’t explain how STAR Labs, as a company, continues to pay its property taxes and water bill.

Personally, I think the answer is a little bit of all of these ideas.

  • I think Cisco and Caitlin both own some patents and that they collect a little money from them, but not enough to live on.
  • I think Dr. Wells continued to pay them, even after the particle accelerator explosion, and I think after taking ownership of STAR Labs, Barry continues to pay them.
  • I think their salaries must include an extra stipend towards buying their own personal health insurance, because what group health provider is going to offer a plan to a company with only two employees, whose corporate office is a “class four hazardous location”?
  • I think Dr. Wells, a speedster who has mastered time travel far more than Barry ever has (and who paid the price for it), obtained his wealth by putting money in a savings account in the past and living off the beaucoup interest.
  • I think when Barry came into possession of this wealth, he was OK with spending it since the only laws Wells broke in obtaining it were the laws of physics.
  • And I think Barry gives Cisco and Caitlin matching 401(k), continuous education via a generous training stipend, and an extravagant Christmas bonus every year because he’s Barry Allen, the fastest, and nicest, man alive.

That’s my headcanon, and I’m sticking to it. Now don’t even get me started about how CatCo must have an unlimited PTO policy because if they didn’t, Kara Danvers would have been fired halfway through Supergirl season one due to all of her sudden absences from work.

Tomorrow’s Shepherd Cover Reveal

I’m very pleased to reveal to the world the cover of my next book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the second book of The Verdant Revival.

eBook Cover

Tomorrow’s Shepherd shifts the focus of The Verdant Revival from sword-wielding blacksmith Siv McCaig to his best friend, socially awkward, mechanical genius Fritz Reinhardt. With the alien white demons defeated, Fritz embarks on a worldwide effort to restore the planet’s chipware. He’s the only person who can repair planet Verde’s ancient technology, lost two centuries prior. The promises of instantaneous communication, vastly improved medicine and hygiene, and labor-saving tools fill most people with ecstatic hope for an easier life. But a powerful minority remembers technology’s faults: loss of privacy, deadly high-tech weapons, and devastating environmental impact.

These critics find a powerful ally in Lady Verde, the living spirit of the planet, who demands an end to the technological restoration. How can Fritz build a better future when the planet itself is fighting against him? How will Fritz and his friends defend the people when their planet turns deadly? And what secret is Lady Verde hiding?

Fritz is featured on the cover clad in a high-tech chipware suit. And what is that massive robot he’s just tackled? Back in August, I dropped the hint that Tomorrow’s Shepherd features two villains, and both were mentioned by name in Yesterday’s Demons. The first is Lady Verde. The second is the Steelterrors, a group of giant, sentient robots who nearly destroyed the ancient world a thousand years ago. The Steelterror on the cover doesn’t look too happy to be taken down by a lowly “blood bag,” does it? Fritz is in for quite the fight.

Here’s the entire picture you’ll see on the front and back covers of the paperback edition. Click on it to view it full size.

Tomorrow's Shepherd Cover - Full

The illustrator of this cover is Tommaso Renieri, a gifted artist and a true professional. I’m blessed to have found him, and it was a pleasure to work with him on this piece.

Tomorrow’s Shepherd will be available in ebook and paperback in 2018. I’m currently hard at work finishing it. Check back soon for more updates. I can’t wait to tell you this story!

Tomorrow’s Shepherd cover reveal coming soon

TS Tiny Cover TeaserI have some exciting news today! Next week, I’ll be revealing the cover of my next book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, book two of The Verdant Revival. That reveal will happen right here, on this blog, but a sneak peek will first go out to everyone who subscribes to my newsletter.

I send my newsletter a handful of times a year, anytime I have something I’m especially happy to report. If you’re not already a newsletter subscriber, please become one.

Whatever channel you prefer, stay tuned! You’re soon going to get your first glimpse at Tomorrow’s Shepherd.

Come see me at a Local Author Fair

AuthorFairI’m happy to announce I’ve been invited to participate in the Schertz Public Library’s Fall Local Author Fair on Saturday, October 21, 2017. The event will take place from 1 to 3 PM. Eleven authors from the Schertz-Cibolo area will spend the first hour talking about ourselves and our work, and the second hour will be a meet-and-greet.

If you’re in the area, stop on by! I’ll have paperback copies of Yesterday’s Demons available for sale. I’ll have some giveaway swag, too. Yay, free stuff!

The Schertz Public Library is located at 798 Schertz Parkway in Schertz, Texas. I hope to see you there!

On having an introverted child who needs to be alone. Often.

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Photo from Pixabay,
licensed under CC0 1.0

Unless you’re the Energizer Bunny, you eventually will get tired. Everyone needs to rest and recharge themselves. But how we recharge is a huge distinguisher between extroverts and introverts. To some psychologists, it is the trait that most distinguishes between the two.

Extroverts are mentally energized by being among people, lots of external stimuli, and exciting situations. On the other hand, an introvert may enjoy those same activities, but she will find them mentally draining. She’ll need to recover from them with rest, where rest is defined as down time, alone time, quiet time, or all-of-the-above time.

An introverted child will need plenty of down time in which to rest and regain energy lost during socialization. And an Introvert Parent will most likely have no problem making sure the child gets the time she needs. But beware! There’s a tendency within you, my fellow Introvert Parent, that I believe is not in your child’s long-term best interests. You need to be on guard against it.

An opportunity we wish we’d had
One of my daughters likes to be alone. A lot. If unexpected guests arrive at the house, she runs and hides in her room. When expected guests arrive, she… well, she’s likely to hide in her room then, too. And I understand how she feels because when I was growing up, I felt the same way. I suppose many Introvert Parents did.

Susan Cain’s Quiet started a cultural conversation about introversion and extroversion. One of her theories is that we live in what she calls the “Extrovert Ideal,” “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” But before Quiet, many of us introverts felt misunderstood, or worse, felt our preferences were ignored or belittled.

Knowing what we know now, we Introvert Parents can do better for our own children. So your son likes to be alone? Great. Let him be alone! Be respectful of his needs. Let him whittle away his leisure hours reading in his bedroom, or building with Lego, or whatever it is he likes to do.

But no one stays home forever. Outings, errands, even — gasp! — parties are not just facts of life, they’re good things. (Yes, even parties can be good.) And there are a few tips I’ve learned to follow to give my introverted children the greatest chance of having fun and enjoying themselves in such occasions.

  • Set expectations. Don’t make the outing a surprise. Let your child know ahead of time that it is going to happen. An introverted child will have a lot of questions. Who will be there? How long will we be gone? What will we do once we get there? The more of these questions you can answer ahead of time, the greater the likelihood the introvert child will enjoy himself.
  • Arrive early. Walking into an empty room is far, far easier for an introverted child than walking into a crowd. It will give the child time to get used to his new surroundings and environment without having to get used to the crowd of people around him at the same time.
  • Not every outing is a chore. Sometimes, the outing should be to something he really enjoys, like an art class, or a superhero party. If the only parties he ever attends are crowded, noisy, and the opposite of everything he likes, then, of course, he’s going to sour on all parties. Show him what a fun outing can be.
  • Let him take a breather. Just a few minutes in solitude, or silence, or both can be re-energizing. If he seems to be getting drained in the middle of the event, take a break from it. If it’s a sporting event, go visit the souvenir stand or concession stand, but do it during a time when most folks are in their seats. If it is a party at a friend’s house, take a walk around the block, or spend some time at a nearby playground. Relieve the pressure for a while, and he might be energized enough to make it through the rest of the event without a meltdown.

“Let her take a break” is good advice for time spent at home, too. A day the family spends doing some kind of activity together is likely exciting and fun for an introverted child, especially if she has a quiet, safe space to retreat to for a while if needed.

The hidden danger
As an Introvert Parent, you are thoroughly equipped and qualified to take care of your introvert child’s need for alone time. But you can also be your own worst enemy, especially if you grew up wishing you could have more time alone, or wishing your relatives understood you loved them, but needed to control the amount of time you spend with them. You’re a parent, so of course, you want to give your children a better life than what you had. But in this case, your tendency may be to coddle your children.

Though I have tried very hard to make sure my daughter gets all the alone time she needs, there are many situations in which I’ve had to draw a firm line between being supportive and being pampering:

  • She doesn’t always get to “just stay home.” She has to do some things she thinks she doesn’t like. Am I trying to force her into the Extrovert Ideal? Not at all! I’m trying to prepare her for life. She probably won’t want to go to class in college, either. She probably won’t want to go to work. I don’t want to push her into the rat race too young, but nor do I want it to be a shock to her once she’s in it.
  • She doesn’t have to be a social butterfly, yukking it up with everyone at the party. But she does have to be polite. She has to greet people. She has to say please and thank you. She doesn’t have to offer small talk, but she has to listen politely to it. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, being rude is not OK. Wheaton’s Law applies to all.
  • Sometimes I’m flexible on when she does her chores, but there are still deadlines, and sometimes, I just need the table set now. I give her a lot of leeway in making her own personal schedule, but when I need to step in and request her immediate attention, I need her to respectfully comply.

Having an introverted child is a dream come true for you, my fellow Introvert Parent, because such a child will share so many of your preferences in how to spend free time. Just be conscious of what you permit and the example you set; you don’t want your child to become the meme stereotype of introversion. He needs your help to stay more “I like quiet” and less “I hate all people except the Amazon delivery guy.” Help him to explore our loud, busy, wonderful world, not hide from it. Then, after the socializing is done, show him the truly spectacular things that can happen when you combine snacks, a sofa, and Netflix.

August 2017 Status Update

The story of what I’ve been up to lately is in my Project Tracker:

2017-08 Status Update

I finished the second draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, and it is currently in the hands of the first of my beta readers! I’ve been working on this book for twenty months now, and it’s not done yet, but nevertheless, I’m happy to reach this milestone.

I’ve previously given out a few teases about the book. I’ve mentioned that each of the three books of The Verdant Revival will have a different theological virtue as its theme. Yesterday’s Demons was about love. Tomorrow’s Shepherd is about hope.

I’ve mentioned that each of The Verdant Revival‘s main characters takes a turn as the star of a book. Siv was the focus of Yesterday’s Demons. Tomorrow’s Shepherd is Fritz’s story. And I mentioned that “gravity” was not only the 100,000th word I wrote for the book, but it’s also another theme of the book, so much so that “Defying Gravity” from Wicked is perfect for the book’s soundtrack.

To celebrate the completion of the second draft, here’s a new hint about the book’s plot. Tomorrow’s Shepherd features not one, but two villains… and both were mentioned by name in Yesterday’s Demons.

As is my practice, I now plan to put the book on the shelf while my beta readers absorb it. During this break, I plan to catch up on some articles I’ve meant to post here. I also have another project in mind I’ll be starting very soon. It will be a different experience for me, but I’m very excited about it. And since I don’t want to sound entirely coy and elusive, I’ll say this much about it: it’s a non-fiction project.

As always, I want to thank everyone for reading this for your support. I can’t say you’re the reason I write, because I have to write, and I’d do it even if no one read my work. But the fact you do read it, and enjoy it, and tell me about your enjoyment of it means so much. Thank you for your continued support.

Deus vobiscum.

A cult of quality

One of my favorite books about software engineering is Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, and one of my favorite parts of that book is the introduction of the phrase “cult of quality.” DeMarco and Lister define this as a team that has decided “only perfect is good enough for us.” While most of the world won’t argue for higher quality, members of a cult of quality will “always turn out something that’s better than what their market is asking for.”

It’s my great privilege that in my day job as a senior software developer and team lead, I work in a cult of quality. My company recently published an article I wrote about our cult of quality.

Check it out and let me know what you think. If you’re a software engineer, do you work in a cult of quality? If not, how can you make your environment into one? And if you’re not in software engineering, how can you live a cult of quality in whatever it is you do?

Should I capitalize Heaven? And if I don’t, do I go to hell?

I’m a traditionalist. I still have a landline. I kiss my bride at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day (when I’m awake for it). Our national pastime isn’t this newfangled foosball nonsense, it’s baseball — and day baseball at that. I lean traditional when it comes to grammar, too. I write text messages using proper spelling and punctuation. When someone tells me they’re doing good, I think, “Superman does good. You’re doing well.” (But I don’t say it out loud because I don’t want to be that guy.)

But I’ve read a lot of Grammar Girl, and I’ve come to see that much of what I’ve always thought of as grammar rules are actually styles. My traditionalist mindset says that rules are absolute, but style? Style is very personal. I must obey the speed limit, but don’t you dare tell me what I should wear. My clothes are an expression of me, man. This has led me to be much more accepting of new grammar styles than I once was. I’m cool with leaving the periods out of an abbreviation. I’ve accepted that, in typed text, it’s OK to put a single space between sentences instead of two. Singular “they”? It hasn’t always been my thing, but I’m open to giving it a try.

It’s from this perspective of English as a living language, and not something that stopped evolving with the death of Noah Webster, that I want to talk about heaven and hell. Or is it Heaven and Hell? Turns out that while organized religion might be considered one of the most traditionalist things around today, the grammar style used by many sects of Christianity is actually pretty modern.

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Credit: cocoparisienne via Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

His pronouns are simply divine
God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all capitalized because they’re proper names. I think pretty much everyone agrees on that. And despite the fact that the entirety of my education was in secular public schools, I was always taught the traditional style that pronouns referring to God are to be capitalized. My children’s Catholic homeschool English textbooks still teach this style. But I’ve noticed that this is no longer universally observed, even in some fairly pious places… like the Bible itself!

Here’s Matthew 2:2 from the New American Bible, the translation of the Bible used in the Catholic Mass readings in the United States: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Under traditional style, “king,” “his,” and “him” all should have been capitalized in that sentence, but they’re not. And this isn’t just a Catholic thing. A Bible translation comparison tool shows most Bible translations do not capitalize divine pronouns.

While the “capitalize all divine pronouns” style was no doubt implemented as a way of demonstrating respect for God, I assume readability concerns are what prompted the move away from it. Unorthodox capitalization is jarring. Authors and Bible editors probably decided (wisely) that they shouldn’t do anything to distract their readers from a religious text, especially scripture.

Are we trying to reach Heaven or heaven?
What about Heaven and Hell? They are the proper names of places, and therefore should be capitalized. Right? (Even a non-believer should agree with this, as the names of fictional places like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are capitalized.) I understood the move away from capitalized divine pronouns, but I was a little surprised to find that even amongst religious authors and editors, the common modern style is not to capitalize heaven and hell either.

Matthew 5:20 (NAB) reads, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1024 reads, “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called ‘heaven.'” And on the subject of the bad place, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033 reads, “This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.'”

Why not capitalize heaven and hell? I note those Catechism definitions don’t call them places, instead labeling them a “perfect life” and a “state.” So are they not to be considered places, and therefore proper name capitalization rules do not apply to them? That’s a theological question outside the scope of this discussion. But it is worth noting that the New American Bible does capitalize one synonym for hell: Gehenna, as in Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.”

The NAB footnotes indicate Gehenna comes from “Hebrew gê-hinnōm, ‘Valley of Hinnom,’ or gê ben-hinnōm, ‘Valley of the son of Hinnom,’ southwest of Jerusalem, the center of an idolatrous cult during the monarchy in which children were offered in sacrifice.” It’s the proper name of a place and therefore capitalized. As for Bibles other than the NAB, a BibleStudyTools.com comparison shows translations that use “Gehenna” or a different transliteration of the Hebrew word do capitalize it, though most versions of Mark 9:43 simply use “hell,” uncapitalized.

Grammarly-HeavenIt seems the majority of religious sources say heaven and hell should not be capitalized. What about secular sources? Well, when I used Grammarly to look over this article, it flagged at least one use of uncapitalized heaven as a possible error. And Alanis Morissette said, “Isn’t it ironic?”

Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises? And do you refuse to capitalize the name of the place where he lives?
The style an author uses says a lot about them, or at least about the tone they intend with that particular work. And that brings me to an observation I’ve made over and over — the observation that prompted me to write this article. I see it frequently. Here’s an example from the way the Act of Contrition is posted in my parish’s confessional:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell.

Did you notice the capitalized “Heaven” and uncapitalized “hell”? Aww yeah, this is the style I call “sticking it to the devil by withholding a capital.” The person who uses this style — and I’ll admit, at times in the past, that person has been me — is saying, “Heaven is worthy of capitalization, but hell is not.” Take that, Satan!

For my personal style on this matter, I’ve decided to take my lead from my church. Heaven and hell are not capitalized unless they’re at the beginning of a sentence. And God knows I love him even if I don’t capitalize pronouns that refer to him. But nor am I here to judge. If a fellow believer wants to capitalize divine pronouns or write of “Heaven” and “hell,” so be it. As Grammar Girl says in her TED talkwe are the ones who vote on new words and new styles, and we do it by using some and ignoring others.

But if you don’t use the Oxford comma, you are going to hell.

Coping with noisy children as an introvert parent

If I were to give this article a clickbait headline, it would be, “An introvert parent controlled his six children’s noise levels with one simple rule.”

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Credit: Skeeze via Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

The family meal is as American as apple pie, which incidentally is exactly what we hope to receive at the end of one. It’s a time to be together and to eat together, but not in silence. The true beauty of the family meal is the opportunity it gives us to communicate with one another. Father Leo Patalinghug’s Grace Before Meals movement is built on the idea that “the simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships.”

But when you’re the father of six children, all of them nine-years-old or younger, you don’t get a lot of communication during dinner. You get a lot of crosstalk and noise. The volume of the voices sometimes is the problem, but usually not. The problem is usually quantity. Dearest Sons 1 and 2 are talking about Pokemon, complete with sound effects. Dearest Daughter 2 is singing at the top of her lungs (and not eating). Dearest Son 3 is bellowing loudly about how his food is yucky, which makes Dearest Wife, who worked very hard to make the meal, more and more frustrated. Dearest Daughter 3 is climbing down from her seat to sit in her mother’s lap. And Dearest Daughter 1, like me, just wants to run away from the table and escape to somewhere quiet, like solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary. With young children, a regular family meal can be a raucous dinner party every night.

Some families thrive on this. If you need an example, go watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But what about a highly introverted person, like me? In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses the research of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan into “high-reactive” types, people whose brains easily overload on dopamine and thus find themselves easily overstimulated. Dr. Elaine Aron has conducted extensive research into what she calls “highly-sensitive persons” (which I also am), people who are easily overwhelmed by bright lights or loud sounds. In her book The Introvert Advantage, Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., describes a similar situation and reaction: “Peter, an introvert, is going to a museum, looking forward to seeing his favorite Monet. As he enters the museum, which is not crowded, he feels overwhelmed; he reduces his focus immediately, perhaps without even realizing it.”

It isn’t just that we’d prefer a quiet meal in which the only sounds are the clinking of silverware and some soft Vivaldi music. It’s that when we encounter a situation in which numerous voices are talking over one another, our brains overload on all the stimulation, and we shut down, like a circuit breaker disrupting an overpowered electrical line. Self-imposed isolation from your own family isn’t something any of us wants, no matter what the internet cliche of the “Just leave me alone, everyone!” introvert might make some people think. So what’s an introvert parent to do?

Rule #3
My wife Rose and I have many rules for our children, but they’re all pretty standard stuff, like don’t hit your siblings, be excellent to one another, and don’t stick forks up your nose. We also have three special rules, each one important enough to be numbered. Rule #1 is “obey us the first time.” We’re not tyrants, we just want to teach our kids a proper sense of obedience and trust towards their parents. Rule #2 is “let Mommy get her sleep,” and you can read more about that one when my wife starts writing articles about being an “I Really Need My Sleep” Parent.

Rule #3 is “one person speaks at a time.” It’s pretty self-explanatory. It means when we’re all gathered together, everyone takes turns speaking. We don’t talk over one another. We don’t hold multiple conversations simultaneously. We listen, and we don’t just wait to talk.

And it works. It works so well. The two main benefits are:

  • Quiet at the dinner table. Not silence, but quiet. Although we are eight, only one of us is speaking at any one time. The noise level goes from “wild, crowded party” to “pleasant conversation with the closest of friends.” Bliss!
  • Perhaps a less obvious benefit: it slows the pace of the conversation. This is essential to my introvert-wired brain with its “long, slow acetylcholine pathway” as Laney puts it. I can keep track of one conversation. I get tired, frustrated, and eventually angry when I have to track three at the same time.

Knowing the rule and living it are two separate things
Rule #3 works so well and so wonderfully, you’d think there was nothing wrong with it. But there is. It has a single drawback, and it’s a huge one: the children don’t obey it. At least not all the time. But honestly, I’d be a little worried if they did constantly follow it. They’re all under ten-years-old, after all. They’re supposed to be wild little gremlins.

Since it’s against the nature of young children and toddlers to carry out a civil one-person-speaks-at-a-time conversation, there are a few techniques I’ve learned for helping them to follow Rule #3. First, it’s a big help if you or your spouse can “hold court” at the table. It will go against every fiber of your introvert self, but you have to make yourself the focus of attention. You’re going to have to be the moderator.

If you work a day job, apply some of your corporate experience here. We’ve all attended meetings that aren’t truly exchanges of ideas, but are instead ceremonies, right? Usually, the ceremony involves the meeting organizer going around the table, calling on participants one at a time to give their reports. This is one of the worst uses of your time in corporate America, it is an abuse of a meeting, it is an email or instant message or 1-on-1 conversation forced into the context of a team meeting merely for the convenience of a supervisor. But in the context of a parent controlling the conversation to keep it from erupting into noisy chaos, it’s perfect! Give each child a chance to say something about his or her day, or to tell a story or a joke, whatever works best. In our family, I often ask, “Who has a kindness to report?” and we swap stories of kind acts we did for others that day or kind acts others did for us.

While Rule #3 was born as a way to make me want to not run and hide every time the dinner bell rang, it doesn’t have to apply solely to meal times. It works any other time you and your family are together and the conversation is at risk of becoming a free-for-all. This might be in the car, or even just while sitting around the living room together on a lazy Sunday.

It also bears mentioning that there are ways to apply Rule #3 in a way that can steer the family activity away from conversation completely. What if the one person speaking is reading a book to the family? What if the one “person” speaking is the television, while everyone enjoys a show or a film together? Suddenly, your family is sharing in an activity you likely love, and in a way that combines a low level of stimulation with a high level of family togetherness.

A balancing of needs
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that your children won’t stick to Rule #3 forever not just because it’s in their nature as children not to, but that it may be in their nature as themselves not to. Their needs may very well be different than yours. They might be extroverts or ambiverts who need some extroverted time. They, or your spouse, may thrive on a boisterous conversation: the louder and the more people talking at once, the better. Five separate conversations going back-and-forth across the dinner table, mixed together with compliments to the chef and requests to pass the mashed potatoes, may absolutely energize someone else, even while it sucks you dry. And that’s OK!

A few paragraphs ago I disparaged the internet cliche of the “Just leave me alone, everyone!” introvert, but cliches often exist for a reason. We don’t like to talk about it much, but I believe introverts’ tendency to focus on our inner world can tip the wrong direction and slide towards selfishness. I know it can in me.

Find the right balance. Give your kids the time they need to be loud. Let them shout and giggle and make funny voices and tell silly jokes. Let all six of them do it at the same time, to the point that you honestly don’t know who is listening to who. I try to do this as much as I can, but when it just gets to be too much, I raise three fingers and wait for everyone to notice the silent reminder I’m giving them: remember Rule #3. Let’s talk, let’s communicate, let’s share our news and our hopes and our dreams and our fears.

Let’s just take turns doing it one at a time.

Princess cereal face-off

CerealizabowlSome people are all about wine — they know how to sniff it, taste it, savor it. Others are foodies. They know the taste of every obscure spice you never even knew existed. Me? I’m all about morning grains. Welcome to the latest installment of Cerealizabowl, my occasional series documenting my lifelong love of breakfast cereal.

Today I seek to answer a question first posed by the Evil Queen in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Magic mirror on the wall, which is the fairest princess cereal of them all?” I recently spotted two new cereals in the Best Aisle of the Grocery Store, each featuring a different Disney princess. Me being me, I had to try them both. Would they sing “Be Our Guest” in my breakfast nook? Or would they make me proverbially prick my finger on a spindle and fall asleep until lunch?

Disney Princess Cereal
prod_img-6465515_belleMy three daughters love the princesses — any princess, be it Belle, Leia, or Peach, so I knew they’d love this cereal. As for myself, I wasn’t so sure. At first glance, this is a YALCC — Yet Another Lucky Charms Clone. Oats, marshmallows of different shapes and colors… does Lucky the Leprechaun have a lawyer? Maybe he filled his pot of gold with the spoils of many a successful copyright lawsuit?

But Disney Princess cereal has a new twist. It’s strawberry flavored! This, too, has been done before (Strawberry Cheerios, anyone?), but it’s so tasty, I don’t mind a bit.

The real joy of Disney Princess cereal comes in its marketing. First, Kellogg’s took a play from the 1990s comic book market and released this cereal with four different covers, I mean boxes. Each one features a different princess: Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, or Rapunzel. Do you think my daughters were satisfied with just one? Oh no, they needed all four.

However, the part that thrilled me most was each box featured a “prize.” This was a great throwback to the days of a toy in every cereal box. When I was growing up, the first thing I did upon opening a box of cereal was root through it in search of the included toy. Most cereals don’t offer toys inside the box anymore, which is a shame because passing on traditions to our children is important, you know? Though the prizes were simply items to cut out of the back of the box (a bookmark, a picture frame, a tiara, and a doorknob decoration), I appreciated the effort.

IMAG0443Disney Moana cereal
I know Moana isn’t technically a princess, but as Maui himself says, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” And for the purpose of this cereal face-off, she needs to be a princess, because while strawberry Lucky Charms Disney Princess cereal is good, Moana cereal is awesome.

Moana cereal is made of corn puffs rather than oats, and its pieces are larger, puffier, and much airier than Disney Princess cereal. But what really sets it apart is the taste.

I don’t have the most discriminating palate in the world. (Case in point: my favorite food is breakfast cereal.) I can’t put a bite of food into my mouth and instantly recite all of its ingredients the way my wife can. So it wasn’t so strange that I couldn’t place what Moana cereal tasted like when I first took a bite. But neither could I with the second bite, the third, or even the first bowl. The only words that came to mind were: wow, oh man, and nom nom nom.

Eventually, I decided it tasted like raspberries, but now I think it’s more of a vanilla taste. Either way: delicious. And after you add milk to it? Well, remember the old commercials where milk is poured into Lucky Charms and a rainbow instantly sprouted right out of the bowl? That actually happens when you add milk to Moana cereal. Whoever made this cereal can rightfully smile upon us and say, “You’re Welcome.”

I should also mention I did not even get a bite out of the first box of this cereal that entered my house. My kids loved it so much, they devoured it all in one breakfast. Good kids, all of them — darn good kids. They’ve come to appreciate the finer things in life.