Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Popular Myths and Legends, Continued: USA, Japan

I remember growing up hearing about how those dastardly no-gooders over in Japan were either much better or much worse manufacturers than we were, and how in both cases it meant the end of the American Dream.  I mean, that's how it felt, with Japanese brands like Toyota, Datsun, Sony, and so on excelling in what used to be U.S.-dominated markets right here in River City.  Buy American! the cry arose, not so much because of any particularly clear knowledge of how the international import-export economy worked, but because by gosh we were Americans, and we were the best.

Indeed, it didn't matter if a Japanese-made car could run twice as long on less gas than the American car could, if it didn't have Ford or Chevy (or any other American brand, now--hey, don't hate on me for not listing all of them) on the back, it wasn't worth a hill of beans.  That's good ole' American pinto beans, for sure for sure.  With bacon.  And "tuhmater" sauce and just a bit of brown sugar.

(Ah, heck, now I'm hungry again.)

It was during this time that I heard one of the more interesting of urban legends.  It seemed, according to the story being told, that a town in Japan, anxious to be more accepted by Americans (and, we were sure, knowing that Americans only look at the 'made in' label when making purchasing decisions), decided to rename one of their towns "USA" in order to say truthfully that products made there had been "Made in USA."

Granted, had the deception been a real desire, they could've just put "Made in USA" labels on the products without renaming the town, but for an urban legend to prosper it needs a twist of the sinister, right?  Sinister is to urban legends what bacon is to beans, after all. 

The amusing part is that accepting that this could happen implies either labeling the entirety of the U.S. Customs force as a bunch of incompetent knuckleheads, or not knowing what the job of Customs is.  While I grant that there have been instances of sleepy Customs agents letting something past, by and large our friendly(ish) border agents are pretty good at making sure that incoming products meet labeling and other legal import requirements.

Granted, back then it wasn't possible to go online to look up the tourist sites in Japan, including this one for the Usa Shrine, a beautiful structure which is noted as a Japanese National Treasure and is considered one of the most significant Shinto shrines in the world.  Named after the town nearby, it was called the Usa jingu back when it was built in the early 8th Century, which does just happen to be a few years before Japanese companies started manufacturing electronics and cars for sale.

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures, but Google Images does.  It's a beautiful shrine.  

So, like many other myths, this one bears a kernel of truth--that there really is a town named Usa in Japan--and is borne through the air on whispers of distrust for others. 


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Myths and (Urban) Legends Example: Skim Milk Causes Fat Kids

A couple of days ago I wrote about health-related myths and urban legends.  It was a fun post to research, and a fun one to write as well.  I enjoyed watching the video by Tom Naughton, linked at the end of my post, quite a bit; not only did I learn a lot about different types of studies and different code words to look for in evaluating the study results, but I also found his sense of humor to be engaging.

Didn't you?

"Okay, I admit, I don't follow links from blogs very often," I can hear you saying.  That's okay; I don't either.  But please do, in this case--go back to the blog post I linked above, and down at the bottom follow the link to Naughton's video.  It's 46 minutes of goodness.  I'll wait; heck, I'll probably go enjoy it again myself in the meantime.

Okay, now that you're back, he makes some good points, doesn't he?  Butter, for example, might be relatively solid (though squishy, in my experience) at room temperature, but it's perfectly runny at artery temperature.  Bananas, meanwhile, are rather solid at artery temp.  Bananas bad, butter good.  See how cool science is when you really get into it?

And then there's that word "associated."  I hadn't thought much about it, but he's right.  Using the word "associated" to describe a statistically significant correlation (in other words, enough members of the population who have one thing also have another to satisfy statistical tests) is one thing, while using it to then suggest causation is another.  After all, having red hair is associated with sunburns, since people with red hair are also often fair-skinned, and people who are fair-skinned are more likely to get sunburned, but red hair neither causes nor is caused by sunburns.

So all that said, I was a little surprised to come across an example presented this morning, so soon after my own blog post.  And I wasn't even looking for it; rather, I was checking online to see the caloric difference between whole milk and 2% milk.

Here's a link to the blog over at NPR.  It suggests that, surprisingly enough, giving kids milk containing less fat makes them fatter.  The quoted researchers seem sincere enough in expressing their own surprise at the results.

Giggle, giggle, snort, snort.

I mean, c'mon, we all know that consuming things lower in fat are better for the weight conscious folks than consuming things higher in fat, right?  Or, um, do we?  Hopefully you paid attention to Naughton's video and glared at me just a little when I said that.  After all, basic nutritional science tell us that a human body needs to consume a certain--albeit low, for most of us hard-charging desk-jockies--amount of fat regularly in order to operate.  The more active, the more calories burnt, and thus the more fat needed.  The extremely active Eskimo people consume a great deal of fat, after all, and they're just fine.  So why would removing fat from an active kid's diet be a good thing?

Bottom line: are you really gonna tell me that skim milk causes more fat kids than whole or 2% milk does?  With a straight face, even?

I guess the two doctors from University of Virginia are.  Their study, or at least its abstract (a term used by academicians for "making a long story shorter but no more readable") is linked from the blog post.  Turns out they did a longitudinal study (a study in which the same population is checked over time) and found that the kids fed skim milk had more weight problems (defined as being overweight or obese) than those fed normal milk.  Yeah, there are a lot of numbers in the abstract, and as I've already pointed out on this blog, Americans in general don't know math.  But generally speaking, "p < .01" means that the probability of the hypothesis being true is less than 1%, which in turn means that the researcher is more than 99% certain the hypothesis (generally that there's no relationship between the variables) is false, which means they're 99% certain that there's a relationship between, in this case, kids who drink skim milk and kids who tend to be overweight.  Similarly, "p < .0001" means the researchers are 99.99% certain of their results.

See how easy that is?  The researchers are at least 99% certain that there is a statistical correlation between consumption of skim milk in the studied population (2-4 years old, diverse demographics) and weight issues.

So skim milk causes fat kids?  Really?

Let's think about it.  I'd love to see a study done on how many kids despise skim milk.  Hell, I do, and I'm not even a kid.  Skim milk is like watered down plaster, no offense intended to the skim cows.  But why on earth would parents, in the aggregate at least, want to feed their kid something that's fairly icky unless the kid is trending toward being overweight anyway?

In other words, sure, I'll buy that being overweight might cause skim milk consumption.  But I won't buy it going the opposite direction.  Sorry.


P.S. (caveats):

  1. The researchers in question did, in fact, put in their conclusion what I said in my next to last paragraph.  But people didn't read to the conclusion in school, nor do we do so at work, and so seldom do we do so in the other parts of our lives either.  
  2. I admit, I did not read the entire report of study.  I'm too cheap to pay for the download.  I'll bet most agencies reporting on the story are the same way.
  3. No, skim cows are not used to make skim milk; centrifuges are.  Was fun to say, regardless. 

Monday, May 27, 2013


We hold a lot of tunes dear because of their complex and moving melodies and/or chord arrangements.  Taps isn't one of those.  In fact, as far as I know, there are no chords arranged for the song.  I've never heard it played on anything but a bugle/trumpet, for that matter.  Far from complex, it's written entirely in the harmonic triad of the horn's fundamental tone, a fact that allows it to be performed on any bugle or trumpet with no valve movement at all.

Simplicity to the extreme.

And yet Taps, for such a simple song, is one of the most touching pieces I've ever heard.  It closes out a service member's day, signaling the end of a long period of duty to the nation and, in some cases, a sprint to the room to avoid being written up.

I admit, I have first-hand knowledge of all of that.  Also have first-hand knowledge of how the peal of Taps echoes through the trees and assembled hearts and souls at a military funeral, and that one I sincerely hope you never have to experience.

Today being the special day of remembrance, though, I can't help wading through the feelings once again.  So many have given their lives in defense of the nation.  I recall my time as Casualty Assistance Officer for the kid from Puyallup, WA, whose parents had been disagreeing for so long they couldn't even agree on how to lay their son to rest--we ended up scattering his ashes over Mt. Rainier for one and then burying the urn in a military cemetery for the other.

I recall classmates.  I recall friends.

Today is their day.

This blog isn't long enough to list them all, nor is the factual portion of my memory, so I'll shorten the remembrances here to my classmates who fell in combat:

R.I.P., Lt. Col. Paul Finken, killed in 2006 in Iraq

R.I.P., Lt. Col. James Walton, killed in 2008 in Afghanistan

Be thou at peace.


More Myths and (Urban) Legends

After writing about food yesterday, I ended up being hungry nearly all day.  Next topic, please....

While researching about food myths yesterday I came across a site that listed the "25 Most Popular Urban Legends."  Going back to the discussion of observational vs. clinical science in the video I linked yesterday, I have to wonder how the "List 25" site knew they were the most popular, rather than just popular ones that hit the author's radar, but regardless some of them are interesting to me since I, personally, held onto them tightly for a long while in my youth.

I acknowledge what has to say about the titillating desire to see public figures as "not who they say they are," but that wasn't really why I bought into these myths.  I remember, back when I was young, how wonderful it felt to believe that people who were already pretty awesome could be heroes, too.  There were two separate myths whose bandwagons I recall leaping right onto:
  • Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL who served heroically in Vietnam, and
  • John Denver was a military sniper who served heroically in Vietnam.
Now, Fred Rogers, of the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame, did in fact once receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which you must admit sounds kinda like the Congressional Medal of Honor, the ultimate award for a military hero.  But--well, but it's not.  The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award the President can give, and unlike the Medal of Honor, which can only be awarded for valor in combat, the PMoF is awarded for "meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or any other such and all that jazz."

Okay, I admit, I rephrased that last bit to make it easier to swallow.

The dates kinda sorta work out, ish.  Mr. Rogers was born in 1928, and the SEALs were formed in 1962 and first used in Vietnam in 1963.  Granted, one might imagine they'd initially go for younger men, since by that point a lot of military folks are winding down into less physically active parts of their careers, but there's no reason to believe a 34-year-old couldn't have made it. 

Of course, that suggests that the 34-year-old wasn't already doing other things.  1963 was a bit of a milepost year for Mr. Rogers.  That was the year he graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and subsequently packed his bags to head to Toronto (yes, Canada--not really a participant in the Vietnam War) to do the very first few years of Mister Rogers on a broadcast network.  Kind of fortunately for us, that show didn't last, but he learned what he needed to and three years later moved the show to WQED in Pittsburgh, and then two years later to PBS, and the rest, as they so annoyingly say, is history: four Emmys, a Peabody, a Lifetime Achievement award, the afore-mentioned PMoF, and even an asteroid named after him.  Not bad for a non-Navy-SEAL, eh?

Meanwhile, the age thing works much better for John Denver, who was born in 1943 and therefore could easily have been a young, strapping and eager 19-year-old when the SEALs were formed.  But the legend doesn't have him as a SEAL; what I've heard places him as an Army sniper.  Eh, a hero's a hero, right?

There's a little more of a military bent to Denver's case, too--while Fred Rogers probably never, ever, considered the military as a career, Denver wanted to follow his dad through a career in the Air Force as a pilot.  He was turned down, though, due to his eyesight--as was I, once upon a time (the only reason I add that is to note that I have something in common with John Denver). 

Regardless, in the early years of Vietnam, Denver was comfortably (ish) ensconced in college at Texas Tech School of Engineering in Lubbock.  At about the same time the Navy SEALs were leaping to service over there, Denver decided (and rightfully so, in his case) that he could do better for himself as a singer than as an architect, and so he dropped out, moved to Los Angeles, and joined a group.  Then, at the same time the war was peaking and winding down (1968-1969) Denver reached a point where he'd learned what he needed to about the music business, and so it was 1969 when he broke away from his group and released Rhymes and Reasons.  And the rest, as they say, is....

Nah, I'm not gonna say it.

Have a great Memorial Day.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Myths and Legends

"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." - John F. Kennedy

"The next time a scientist introduces you to his significant other, all it means is that he's 95% sure he's not dating her by accident." - Tom Naughton


If you thought this mythic fiction author was going to write about ancient mythology under the title "Myths and Legends," you're going to be disappointed.  Sorry.  It's a good, fun topic, granted, but I've something a little more recent on my mind, related to the myths and (urban) legends of today.

For example: how many out there know that the reason we eat margarine instead of butter is that the saturated fats in butter are bad for us?

Once upon a time I'd've raised my hand at that one.  We were taught, back when I was growing up, that butter, tasty as it was, was bad for you.  My family dutifully made the transition from butter to margarine, and I'll never forget the first time a young Stevie glopped a pat of margarine into his mouth thinking it would taste the same.  Blech!

Eggs are bad for you, too, right?  Too much cholesterol, tch tch.  But they're tasty, especially when sprinkled with salt, which has its own extreme health risk associated with anything more than the lightest of sprinkles.

And who's heard of the study that tells us that animal proteins can actually cause cancer, but plant proteins do not?  It's called the China Study, and a doctor once told me to go read it and follow its plant-protein-centric (e.g., vegan) diet.  This came the day after my own doctor told me to quit eating carbs and instead to eat--what?  C'mon, guess.  Yes, if you said that it was that nasty cancer-causing lean animal protein that my doctor told me to eat, you were absolutely correct-o! 

So which is truth?  What do I eat?

And now--you know that, the hot dog being one of my all-time favorite foods, I've gotta bring this example to the table--I'm hearing that hot dogs cause "butt cancer."  Hey, if you're on an anti-hot-dog campaign and you need something snappy as a punchline, butt cancer sounds a whole lot worse to contract than colorectal cancer, right?  And who better than the American Cancer Society themselves to back the claim up

At least the relevant page at tells it like it is: "Dozens of studies have looked at the connection between meat in the diet and colon cancer risk.  The picture they paint is somewhat complicated." Complicated, indeed.  For every yes, there seems to be a no.  In fact, apparently a study from Columbia University actually showed that vegetarians were at greater risk of butt cancer than the hot dog shovelers.

So what in the heck should we believe? And--should I eat animal proteins or not?

I checked into the China Study a little bit further.  It turns out that most of their data is based on observations of the Chinese (hey, look, they don't eat much red meat, and they get less cancer, so the lack of red meat in their diet must reduce the rate of cancer!  Can't be anything else like healthier lifestyle) and studies on lab mice in which they fed half of the mice the vegetable proteins the species commonly had in its diet, while the other mice (a creature that is, by nature, vegetarian) were fed a nice healthy red meat diet that would've done a rancher proud.  The mice with the changed diet were generally unhealthier, and they developed cancer at a significantly greater rate.  So therefore, instead of concluding as I would have that "changing a vegetarian into a carnivore is bad for its health," they decided to blame it on red meat.

Poor, maligned red meat.

But back to my previous question--what/who should we believe?

That answer is, unfortunately, too long for this blog.  However, there's a great video posted online of a speech by Tom Naughton, a blogger who delves into the food-related study results which blast into our headlines.  Yes, it's 46 minutes long, but since he's also a stand-up comedian it doesn't feel like it.  It's worth watching, and it'll likely make you doubt everything you thought you knew about food science.

And now, it looks like eggs and butter are back on Stevie's breakfast menu.



So I was doing what I do to waste time the other day: looking up the etymology of phrases that catch my attention.  Specifically, I'd read someone say someone else was "grasping at straws" and started to wonder where that phrase came from.  When did it come into common use as an idiom for trying to bring the useless into the realm of the useful?

As I searched, I came to the conclusion that nobody really seems to know from whence the phrase came.  Several sites cited the term "proverb" as its origin, and as you probably already know, that term means the same for etymology what "interesting" means for victualization: to wit, that we find ourselves in the uncomfortable reality of not knowing what to say, but having to say something regardless.

And then I came across a site that tried, apparently, to be cute.  "We were literally grasping at straws," the writer wrote, "trying to figure out the origin of the phrase, 'grasping at straws.'"


My greatest pet peeve, that is.

I actually talk back to web sites sometimes.  I only do it when nobody else is watching, mind you; I know perfectly well that I'm at least a little bit crazy, but I don't wish for my companions to witness it.  Luckily for me I was alone at the time I found that turn of nonsense phraseology, and so I felt perfectly free to yell at the completely lifeless and fairly hapless screen in front of me.

See, you can't literally do much of anything that's an idiom.  To do something literally means you actually do what the words mean.  To be literally grasping at straws means you're actually in a barn (or worse, at the drink station at McDonald's) grasping with your actual fingies (or toes, I suppose) at straws.  In the same vein (but only figuratively), it was raining cats and dogs the other night here in Memphis, but certainly not literally.  That would've been quite scary.  The news the next day would have been covering events like, "The Smiths here were trying to get from the restaurant to their car when this beagle hit the husband on the head, landing him in critical condition in the emergency room.  His wife was hit too, but only by a Maltese, and so she fared much better.  Their daughter was struck by a Persian who used her dress as a means of slowing its fall; the cat will be okay but the dress is a complete loss."

Similarly, "of course I can eat this plate of spaghetti; it's a piece of cake," is fine, but were you to say it's literally a piece of cake then I'd better see that famous Italian staple somehow worked into a baker's presentation (and no, it doesn't sound any tastier to me than it probably does to you).  To make a slip of the tongue is something our politicians excel at doing, but I really have no desire to ever see them doing it literally.

A slap on the wrist might be appropriate when performed literally on a child, but that same expression might land you in hot water (but not--well, you get it) at work.

"You did what?"

"Well, Mr. Human Resources Manager, you said to give him a slap on the wrist."

"I didn't mean it literally." 

Sometimes it might not be so bad.  For example, being high as a kite, literally, might be more fun than the figurative meaning if you've got the eventual landing taken care of.  And being a fan of bagpipes (professional bagpipes, that is--one high school I attended had a bagpipe clan that sounded like a flock of angry geese, literally), I'd much rather pay the piper literally than any other way.

And on that note, I'll end this little rant.  It's literally been a blast.

No, no, just kidding.  Just.  Kidding.

It's been fun.


Springtime in the South

"Spring is Nature's way of saying, 'Let's party!'" - Robin Williams

The season we reverently refer to as "spring" presents two very different faces depending on where you are.

I spent fourteen years in Alaska; while there, I learned to despise spring.  I mean, yeah, it's when the weather gets warmer.  Yippee skippy.  It's also when mosquitoes are at their prime, bringing swarms of pesky annoyance to any attempt at bursting outdoors with joy.  Also, it's called "breakup" because spring in Alaska is when the ice that rests atop everything starts melting and--well, breaking.  While that sounds like a joyous thing, keep in mind that the ice that is thawing as summer approaches has spent the better part of seven or eight months covering such things as fallen leaves (aka compost) and dog/moose/bear poop (aka fertilizer).  Put simply, it stinks.

There, I said it.  Sorry, Robin Williams.  Spring in Alaska is a stinky season.

That, and it doesn't last.  I used to make the drive in from Wasilla to Anchorage every day, and true spring, with the leaves budding and the birds playing happily, lasts all of about three and a half hours.  It's amazing how quickly you transition from light green sprouty things on the ends of every branch to full-on leaves and great big stalks of devil's club.

Spring in the South is way different.  For one thing, it starts earlier, but I bet you already figured that one out (considering Alaska made the news with a snow storm last weekend).  But the scents are a lot--well, prettier--too.  I walked through the park here by my house today and every step of the way was enhanced by the smell of blooming honeysuckle and wisteria.

Along the entire two and a half miles, I didn't see a single pile of moose poop either.  Go figure.

Now, with all the bragging I've done on springtime in the South, just wait a month or so.  I'll be complaining about the heat, for sure.  Then again, that's another time-honored tradition in the South--"damn, sure is hot" as we go about our business.


Friday, May 24, 2013


"Eighty percent of success is showing up." - Woody Allen

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results." - Rita Mae Brown

"Don't believe quotes you read on the Internet." - Benjamin Franklin


Whew.  Insanity.  All sorts of definitions for that word, right?  Merriam-Webster has its version, of course (though technically, that dictionary has three versions).  Each of us in turn knows what the word means for us.  The politicos, meanwhile, would have us believe that the word refers to whatever the opposing politicos are doing. 

Right now, for me, the word is looming large in my mind because it refers to a workout program.  Yes, I saw the Infomercial for the DVD-based workout program called Insanity, and yes, I got sucked in.  I didn't call right away, to my credit, but instead I did a ton of research online first.  It's real.  It turns out that the program is kind of like the old Jane Fonda workout routine, only on crack.  It's kind of like P90X (in fact, it's offered through the same company) but where P90X targets muscle mass, Insanity targets weight loss and cardio.

Trust me, more mass is the last thing I need.

So I went online and, feeling a little bit guilty over the cost of the program, purchased it (in three easy payments!).  As you can imagine, they tried to upsell me with everything fitness-related under the sun, but I held off.  No, I don't need the special powder drink of good goodness.  No, I don't need the additional CD to bring me rockin' abs (maybe later, once I can actually see the dang things, I'll consider it).  No, I don't need it in 2-3 business days instead of 3-5.  Just--send me the damn DVDs, okay?

They arrived today.  Our stuff isn't here from Virginia yet, though, so I needed to go buy a couple of things: 1) a tape measure, to find out just how much of my non-youthful roundness I'm shedding as I go through the 60 insane days of Insanity, and a digital scale (a serious upgrade from our current +/- 50 pound wheel-based unit, anyway).  I also bought a DVD player, in part because it's also a Blu-Ray device (and we didn't have one of those) and it was on sale!, but also because I wanted to watch skinny people doing exercises I couldn't quite do on the larger TV I have here.  Didn't buy the push-on coax cable, though, so I'm still watching those skinny people on the small screen of my laptop.

Ah, well.  Insanity still burns just as much.

I also bought some high protein stuff, like eggs and chicken breasts, because despite the myth that eggs are bad for you, the protein is what I'll need to do this.  Yes, I did listen in that nutrition and that personal training class I took at West Point so long ago.

And then, full of trepidation though I was (can I do this? will it kill me? will it really help me?), I started.

Sometimes the most important thing to do, after all, is to start starting.

Wish me luck....


Reversing Criticism

It's easy to be critical, isn't it?

When I read, for example, it's easy to rag (as I have here in the past, admittedly) on a book's faults.  It's gotten even easier to do so as my own writing skill has improved.  Not only can I spot technical errors, a task at which I've always been more or less competent, but my efforts, studies, and practices have led me to being able to put a finger, and sometimes even a name, to what it is that bugs me about plotting and characterization flaws.

And when a book's good?  Yeah, it's pretty good.

Supervising is the same situation.  I've spent years honing my calibrated eyeballs to improve my ability to weigh and measure my employees' performance.  It's a vital skill of management, not only for process improvement but also for keeping my own supervisors impressed.  When you can critique performance with specificity, especially without causing undue hurt feelings on the performer's part, you can improve for next time.

And when they didn't do anything wrong?  Yeah, they did pretty good.

The same goes, without too much exemplifying, for the raising of children, doesn't it?  It's easier, it seems, to say no, don't, than it is to say yes, good job.

This concept is discussed in several management and teamwork improvement regimens out there currently, usually somewhere close to the title "catch them doing something right."  It wouldn't be there if we all did it normally.

This occurred to me as I was reading a guest blogger on today.  The post was, after some explanatory paragraphs, a list of the five things Indie authors do very well.  Being an Indie author myself, I felt an inner warmth glowing as I read over the list.  The author, Dr. Baverstock, had some solid points, granted.  Indie authors who get stuff out onto Amazon and other sales sites really do something positive when we actually finish something, and when we take responsibility and ownership of it, and those somethings aren't very commonly done.  The thing is, nobody really ever points that out.  There are a lot of blustery Indie authors, and a lot of Indie readers who swear by those authors, but there are just as many people who seem to take personal offense that we Indies would dare go out on a limb and publish something ourselves.

With all the negativity, it's really, really nice to be reminded of the positive of what we're doing.

That carries out into other aspects of our lives, too, doesn't it?  When was the last time you criticized something your spouse or children did?  When was the last time you caught them doing something right and told them about it?  What about your subordinates at work?  Your co-workers?

Yes, there will always be a need for delivering effective critique as a means of improving performance.  But there's also always a need--probably an even greater need, for that matter--for delivering effective commendation.


Monday, May 20, 2013

On Conflict - And Tornadoes

I used to be one of those writers, myself, who had a hard time finding conflict for my story.  I think that's because I, like many people, want to see good in the world, and conflict is mostly associated with not-good.  We don't, then, want to see conflict in our lives, and so putting it intentionally into a story is at first difficult to do.

These days, though, it shouldn't be hard to find ideas for conflict.  Just look at the main screen of  You'll find political conflict by the bucketfull--the right wing is accusing the left of something, and vice versa, and a leader on either side who steps forward to feed the poor will be accused by the other side of taking jobs away from the poor poor-feeders.  All that stuff gets pretty ridiculous after a while, doesn't it?  But it's still a part of our lives, and still an important part of many peoples' lives, as evidenced by the ratings of the news sites.  Why not, then, invent a political controversy and a related conflict for your own book?

Then, of course, there's sports.  J.K. Rowling incorporated that type of conflict brilliantly in the Harry Potter series.  Remember the little conflict at the Quidditch World Cup?  I thought you might.  Many people, from normal folks to world leaders, have an enjoyment for watching sporting activities, and there are all sorts of conflicts you can use there.

Then there's business. There's lots and lots of conflict in business.  That section of the CNN site is full of conflict, in fact, and a large number of books have used that type of conflict to great effect.

And then, there's--holy hell, what a tornado that was.  One mile wide, they say.  The death toll is already in the dozens as rescuers comb through the wreckage.  On a note entirely unrelated to the writing of fiction, this one's been in my heart and my mind all day.  My kindest and warmest of thoughts go out to the folks involved in that.

But looking away from the devastation on screen for a moment, you have to agree that disasters happen.  Tornadoes crush towns.  Volcanoes smother them.  Earthquakes shake them to the ground.  The list goes on, and on, and on--there is, after all, a reason "Man vs. Nature" is one of the five archetypal conflicts used in storytelling.  A made-up natural disaster of sufficient size can, in fact, create enough conflict for dozens of stories.

So, next time you're wondering what to write about next, just look to the noble writers at your favorite news site for inspiration.

And keep the Oklahoma tornado victims in your thoughts, too.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Dialog on Cleanliness and the Sexes

After a day of cleaning here in our newest humble abode, I came up with this short scene between my main characters from Return of the Gods: Matt, the God of War, Crystal, his wife and fellow deity, and Sorscha, Matt's long-lived thrakkoni (shape-shifting dragon) servant.


"Hah!" Crystal chortled from her spot on the loveseat.

"Yes, dear?" Matt looked up from the book he was reading.

"Yes, what, dear?" Crystal asked, eyes blinking over her most innocent smile.

"Don't yes what dear me, my lovely vixen.  I know that guffaw you just used.  That's the 'I just read something I want Matt to hear' guffaw, now, isn't it?"

"Oh, no, not at all.  I found a particular turn of phrase amusing.  But now that you mention it...."

"Mm hmm."

"Okay, fine, I wanted you to hear this.  So sue me.  Harriet Beecher Stowe was a great writer, as I already knew, but I had no idea of anything else she'd written till you dumped me into your huge, sexy library...."

"Thus proving that sometimes it is the size that matters," Matt said, holding his chin up.

"Uh, right.  So as I was saying, nobody really knows of much else that she's written other than Uncle Tom's Cabin...."

"Because she didn't write anything else worth reading," Matt interrupted again.

"Then why, husband of mine, if that's your opinion, is a work that's not worth reading preserved and maintained in your library?"

"Oh, I don't know.  I knew it was a bad idea to let you read a book written by a woman pretending to be a man talking about how women do things."

"You let me read it?"  Crystal pressed daggers that she didn't really feel into her voice.  She enjoyed the verbal tussling; Matt was one of the few men she'd ever met who could keep up.

"Oh, I suppose, only in the sense that I owned that copy of the work long before I met you, and so it technically belongs to me.  But that wasn't what I meant to say. Anyway, you were saying how wonderful that book you currently hold in your hands is."

 "No, I wasn't saying that at all, though I am enjoying it.  In this section they're talking about voting, and she's--in the form of a he, of course--actually laying out a case for women's suffrage a few decades before it was ever seriously considered.  In the conversation, the guy's friend Bob objects to women going to 'those horrible voting-places' as though they're a filthy disgusting thing that we poor frail creatures shouldn't be forced to visit--and I can't argue against that, really.  But then the guy whose point of view is used for the book says: "All places where women are excluded tend downward to barbarism; but the moment she is introduced, there come in with her courtesy, cleanliness, sobriety, and order."

"Mm hmm," Matt hummed, nodding.  "She's right, of course, though she forgets that a few more moments after she is introduced, sobriety jumps the hell out of the window as she drives her husband to drink."

"By requiring cleanliness?" Crystal asked playfully.

"No, of course not.  Men are generally clean creatures, at least when we're not at war."

"Which you nearly always are.  That said, I reject the main hypothesis.  I bet that in the cycles where you didn't bring a wife back here, this quaint little palace of yours turned into a pigsty."

"No, it absolutely did not, dear.  Dragons love bacon, so no way it would ever bear a population of pigs."

"You know what I mean.  You've never even been able to get a sock picked up when I wasn't around to help."

"Sure I can," Matt said.

Crystal took off one of her socks and tossed it on the floor.  "Prove it," she said, "and without magic, too."

"I don't know why you'd expect a god to go without magic, but okay, fine."  Matt glanced over his shoulder and, grinning, said, "Sorscha, please go pick that sock up."

The thrakkon took a couple of steps toward the sock before Crystal could object.  "Sorscha, no!  Stop right there.  Matt, the deal was for you to pick it up yourself."

"Now why would I do that when I have such lovely helpers?" Matt asked, his face a mask of feigned innocence.

"That's my point.  I'll give you that men are generally clean creatures, but only as long as a woman is around to do the physical part of it for them."

"Well, yeah," Matt said as though it had been the most obvious conclusion she could have reached.  "Now, can I go back to reading my book?"

Crystal stuck her tongue out at him and went back to reading her own book.


Heh.  I am taking over a new place, renting for the time being till we figure out our way around Memphis more.  Turns out the people who rented this house before us didn't do much cleaning.  In the master bathroom's shower I found way too much hair that doesn't match any color in my family, while in the kitchen it took me four hours to get a flammably dangerous amount of grease out of the stove and hood.

There was a time, I think, that I wouldn't have cared much about all that.  I used to be a pig, man, but don't tell the thrakkoni.  As I get older, though, I find myself paying more attention to how clean my space is.  I scrub doors to remove fingerprints, of all things.  Part of it is that I know the lovely lady in my family will be here in a few weeks, and I want her to be impressed by the home, but I have to admit (and hopefully I won't lose my man card for doing so) that the lack of cleanliness bothers me, too.

Oh, and Household Papers and Stories by Harriet Beecher Stowe writing as Christopher Crowfield is a really rather fun read, by the way.  It's available through all sorts of options. 



Right Neighborly

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people." - Gilbert Chesterton

"If your neighbors think you're a detective because a cop always brings you home, you might be a redneck." - Jeff Foxworthy

"I remember, my mom didn't have any help, so if she needed to be somewhere after school, we'd just go down to the neighbors' and she'd give us a snack and make sure we did our homework. There weren't any latchkey kids." - Jennifer Garner

"For me, Los Angeles, New York, where I don't know my neighbors, where people don't necessarily care if they know their neighbors, I'm missing things that truly fed my soul when I was younger, the exchanges between people, the caring and the shared history with people." - Sela Ward

Those of you who've followed my travels recently know I've moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to take on an wonderful new opportunity as a Dean of a large allied health college here.  At first, though, as much as I looked forward to the career opportunity, I was nervous about moving to the city of Memphis.  My nervousness was founded mainly in my childhood memories from Corinth, in which Memphis was the great big ugly dirty crime-ravaged city to the northwest. 

Luckily the childhood memories proved to be at least partially unfounded.  Memphis is actually a wonderful and vibrant city with a lot going on that's good. It's still, of course, a city.  It has crime.  What it also has, more prevalently than most cities I've been in, is a quite interesting (and somewhat scary) patchwork nature: a neighborhood that is acceptable or even really good can sit right next to a neighborhood that--well, that isn't.  Thus, moving into an unknown area can be a bit of a crapshoot.

That was why I was so happy to meet my neighbors tonight.

No, I'm serious.  I was glad to meet them.  I'd been worried; I selected the home in spite of, rather than because of, recommendations of local friends.  Yes, the general area has some crime concerns, but something about this house, in this neighborhood, felt right.

Meeting the neighbors, I understood why.  The first meeting was the wife of the household across the way; she pleasantly said hi and went on about her business.  A few hours after I was up in the attic above my garage trying to get a water heater going and her husband poked his head up, looking to help.  That gesture, insincere, would have kinda scared me a little, but it felt both sincere and wonderful. 

You know, we as a society have an interesting concept of what the neighbor relationship should be, don't we?  It's often kind of a "let's be as close as I want to be, and then no closer" thing.  The disputes alluded to in the first quote above come from that kind of thing, exactly.  And yet, when a genuinely good neighbor relationship exists, it transcends all that.  In that relationship you see, as I did today, a sibling-esque ability to comfortably talk to each other, to pick on each other, to support each other.  You see a genuine concern when someone in the circle is down.

I honestly don't really know how to define it, but I know when I see it.  I suspect most of you do, too.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Go Home, Friday. You're Drunk

In keeping with the now-famous Internet/Facebook meme: Go home, Friday.  You're drunk.

You can see lots of examples of the meme applied here: .  The meme apparently started--well, never mind, you can read its history at the site I just linked.

Fridays are often considered joyous days of joy, for they mark the end of many peoples' laborious work weeks.  When the whistle blows on Friday, either literally or figuratively, it's time for many a tired soul to head home, pop open a beverage of his or her choice, and relax, knowing that the weekend, with all of its relaxing chores and errands, has finally arrived.

Today, though, sucked.  For me, anyway.

First paycheck at the new job:  yay!  Not so yay, though, is that first paychecks are always paper checks that have to be taken to the bank before they can be worth more than the ink they're written with.  At that point, unfortunately, you're at the bank's mercy in terms of whether they decide to release the funds immediately, midnight that night, or even several days hence when they're finally convinced that an ADP payroll check cut off of frickin' US Bank isn't likely to bounce. 

The reason I'm not with that regional Southern bank with the green logo any more is that they really did seem to base the length of time for release of funds for any deposited check on a roll of a die: "Yeah, that d20 came up critical, so, um, yeah, you'll gain use of these funds sometime before Christmas, I'm sure."  Wells Fargo, my current bank, does a lot better, but even they don't release the funds till midnight.  Can't cash the check either, because I don't have that same amount of funds already in the account--never mind the fact that if I already had the funds in my account, I wouldn't be looking to cash the dang check. 

Grr.  I hate banks.  One of these days I want to own one just because.  I'll hold Policy-Writer Whipping Days, with extra strokes of the lash for policies that make it harder for patrons to use their own dang money.

The power/gas/water company was supposed to be out sometime between eight and eleven to turn on everything (including the kitchen sink, in this case).  Now, I've always liked the gas company agents because they're always a lot smarter about making sure I don't blow the place up than I am.  Therefore, I took the morning off of work to keep the door open warmly for the gentleman-ruler of the furnace.

He finally showed up after noon.

...and--get this--he wasn't late.

When they say eight to eleven here, they mean eight "ay em" to eleven "pee em."  That really peed me off, too, as I waited while thinking about all the work piling up at--well, at work, go figure--while sitting there with no lights or air or fans or anything.

But finally he came--yay!  He got everything turned on except--well, except one of the more important things: the hot water heater.  Yes, I know it's redundant to say hot water heater but I don't care.  The point is that it's the only device in the household, other than the small-scale microwave and the stove, capable of heating water.  It's the only device in the household at all capable of heating enough water to transform my shower from a screaming fest to a pleasant experience.

Took us a while to find the darn thing.  I hadn't seen hide nor hair of a cylindrical tank that, interestingly enough, has neither hide nor hair on it.  He looked up into the attic, which seemed a funny place to me since I'd always seen water heaters in garages and closets before, and didn't see it.  That set off a frantic Stephen-search through the house; I feared he would leave at any minute without giving me my hot water.  Finally I climbed back up into the attic, and climbed back down nearly immediately since there was no light up there.  He went up with a flashlight and found that the dastardly device had uncloaked itself--thar she blows!  Or not--bad choice of allusions, that was.

Wouldn't start, though.  The sparkie thing wouldn't spark.  The professional gas-passer dude said something more formal, as I recall, something about the igniter not functioning when initiated.  See, the igniter is this sparky thing that is supposed to throw a spark into the gas stream when a button is depressed.  When it doesn't work, there's no spark, which in turn makes for no pilot flame, which in turn makes for Stephen's Cold Showers.



Dejected, I called the property manager and asked that he get on the matter with some degree of haste, since nobody wants to be around me after a weekend of avoiding cold showers.  He agreed.  I asked if I needed to be there.  He said he'd have the guy call me.  I went to work.

Yay!  Work!

I know it's committing an epic un-Friday-ness to celebrate work on that day, but there were things I had to get done or else I'd need to go in over the weekend.  I only had a few hours, too, since the cable/Internet company was scheduled to be out between five and seven.

That's five and seven pee em, if you're wondering.  I love my Internet as much as, and probably more than, most people, but no way in hell am I up for the other alternative.

I was almost to work when the cable/Internet dude called me to remind me that I was set for between one and three, and to let me know he was probably going to be there at about two thirty, ish.  He'd be sure to call me again once he was on his way over.

I sure hope those people can run Internet services better'n they can schedule service calls.

First item of duty at work: an appeals hearing.  See, nearly anything that happens to a student can be appealed by that student, and occasionally someone takes us up on the opportunity.  We always grace that with all the formality we can grant it; after all, we want the student to know they got a fair shake no matter how many times the Dean makes the two-syllable reference to the feces of a male bovine while reading the appeal letter in private. 

We'd just finished the hearing when my cell rang.  Talk about bullshit--the timing, not the hearing.  We deliberated quickly and came to a unanimous and well-considered decision, and then I raced back to the parking garage and drove to the new home-wet-home.

Yes, I said wet.

In the two hours it had taken me to drive to work, attend to the appeal, and drive back, the property manager had acted successfully.  He'd gotten the carpet shampooed.  I have no warm water yet, but at least there were clean, if slightly soggy, carpets for the cable/Internet installer dude to tread across and get dusty.  And he didn't have a DVR with him--apparently everyone else has become as addicted as I to those damned recording boxes, so the warehouse was clean out of them, he explained.  Instead, he was bringing an HD cable box for the non-HD TV that we use DVR on, with the promise that it would be replaced with an HD DVR as soon as one became available.

I resigned myself to playing Sudoku.  That's a good Friday game.

Go home, Friday.  I wanna get drunk....


Friday, May 17, 2013

On Women

"What, Sir, would the people of the earth be without woman?  They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce." - Mark Twain

"After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her." - Mark Twain, Adam's Diary

"Women cannot receive even the most palpably judicious suggestion without arguing it; that is, married women." - Mark Twain

"There is no such thing as an ugly woman." - Vincent Van Gogh

"Some men know that a light touch of the tongue, running from a woman's toes to her ears, lingering in the softest way possible in various places in between, given often enough and sincerely enough, would add immeasurably to world peace." - Marianne Williamson

"The average woman would rather have beauty than brains, because the average man can see better than he can think." - Unknown

"A woman  can say more in a sigh than a man can say in a sermon." - Arnold Haultain

"A pessimist is a man who thinks all women are bad.  An optimist is a man who hopes they are." - Chauncey Mitchell Depew

"Ah, women.  They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent." - Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

"I have an idea that the term 'weaker sex' was coined by some woman to disarm some man she was prepared to overwhelm." - Ogden Nash

"They may talk of a comet, or a burning mountain, or some such bagatelle; but to me a modest woman, dressed out in all her finery, is the most tremendous object of the whole creation." - Oliver Goldsmith

"If women didn't exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning." - Aristotle Onassis

"I'd much rather be a woman than a man.  Women can cry, they can wear cute clothes, and they're the first to be rescued off sinking ships." - Gilda Radner

"If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late?  Nobody." - J.D. Salinger

"The supply of good women far exceeds that of the men who deserve them." - Robert Graves

"Behind every great woman is a guy looking at her ass." - Unknown

"Women speak two languages - one of which is verbal." - William Shakespeare

And with all that being said, I got nuthin' useful to add.  Enjoy the diversity of quoted thoughts about the universe's most complex and beautiful of its creations.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An Unlikely Basketball Fan

Woo hoo!  Go Grizzlies!  Get a--um, let's see--touchd--er, no, a home r--no, no.  Oh, right, get a basket!  Heck, get a bunch of them! 

It's funny, isn't it, how strongly our upbringing can influence our choices in life?  I really see no reason to not like watching basketball.  It's far more entertaining, after all, than, say, golf.  It's like soccer with less grass but more tweet-tweets from the refs.  It's like tennis with bigger balls--and generally taller players.

It's nothing like football.  I like football.  My parents liked football, though.  Dad was a Mississippi State football fan, and Mom was a Dallas Cowboys fan, and I still cheer for both teams no matter how badly they lose.

But nobody in the family was a basketball fan; that was the season that let us watch non-sports channels from the end of football season to the beginning of baseball's spring training.  Thus, I never really built up an interest, personally.

Till now, that is.  Now I'm in Memphis, and it's kind of exciting to have a local team in the playoffs.  Thus, I watch it.  I'm watching the playoff game right now, in fact.

Go Grizzlies!


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Chihuahua

"I hope if dogs take over the world, and they choose a king, they don't just go by size, because I bet there are some Chihuahuas with good ideas." - Jack Handy

"Even the tiniest poodle or Chihuahua is still a wolf at heart." - Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

I had my definite opinions about Chihuahuas once upon a time.  They were mostly formed when I stayed at an old friend's house and she had one who liked to bark-bark-bark-bark at everything and anything.  It was annoying as hell, honestly.  Why, I figured, would anyone want to have one of those little noise machines?

Somehow I had it in my head that every Chihuahua was like the one I'd met.

It's funny; I used to assume a lot of things.  I've gotten a little older, though, and most of my earlier assumptions have been proven wrong.  The "every ____ is like that one" was one of the first and most frequent to go into the giant mental trash heap, of course.

My wife helped that, at least as it pertains to Chihuahuas.  When I met her she owned--or was owned by--a male Chihuahua named Peco.  That little shitdog has managed to prove pretty much every preconceived notion I had regarding him and his kind very wrong.  He's not a yapper, for one thing.  He's also not timid; in fact, he stood up to a moose and lived to tell the tale.  He's a bit overweight, not too much, mind you, but enough to swagger on in and let you know that he belongs to a family that feeds him just fine, thank you very much, kind sir.

Now, I've always been a big dog kinda guy.  My first dog was a lab/shepherd mix.  My second dog was--um, well, a lab/shepherd mix.  I knew a guy who got an English mastiff, and I loved/coveted that great big heap of love.

Then the kid brought home a pomeranian.  I've never been a big fan of poms, but this one rescue animal latched onto me like there was no tomorrow, and I had absolutely no defense against the stares of love.  I'll never forget that lovely lady in a dog's body.

Unfortunately she passed away from some strange stomach ailment soon after we moved to Virginia, and in doing so she left a hole in my heart that was nearly un-fillable.  Nearly.  In defense against the sad weepies, we adopted--you guessed it--another Chihuahua.  This one, though, was long haired in answer to Peco's short hair.  She is needy in every way that he's not.  She's--well, she's a perfect answer to him.

Those of you who know me through Facebook already know my lovely little Chihuahua lady, Yuki, aka Princess Poopsalot.  The kids joke that anything they do they're punished for, but anything she does she gets away with thanks to her little eyes of sparkly love. In fact, they say, half of the things she does, they get punished for.

That said, now that I've run into three completely different Chihuahuas, lemme tell you that the breed represents an amazingly diverse lot with a ton of personality.  It's amazing to me how different the two Chihuahuas who deign to be in our family are, and in turn how different they are from the first one I met.

So, on that note, I end my tribute to Chihuahuas, such as it is. 


Monday, May 13, 2013

Opinions and Authors

"We keep half of what we think hidden away on our inside and only deliver ourselves of that remnant of it which is proper for general consumption." - Mark Twain

"It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races." - Mark Twain, in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

"I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts." - Mark Twain

It must be pointed out, at least in regards to the first question above, that Mark Twain shared his opinion of the opinion-delivering habits that belonged to the general "We" well before the Internet and Facebook made opinion-delivering easy, fun, and relatively anonymous.  These days anyone with an e-mail address (real or faked, often) can crawl onto a web-based forum and share all sorts of opinions in all sorts of ways that would've made a Twain-era sailor blush in shame. 

The practice of sharing your opinion so openly and freely has interesting implications for authors, especially in a world that has become so emotionally-charged in its consideration of political issues.

Specifically: do you, or don't you?

Don't!, the common wisdom cries.  Everyone knows that we authors want people reading our books no matter their political leaning.  And it's true; each time I see the number sold column in the KDP report increment I'm both happy and happily heedless of whether the purchaser was a scumbag right-wing capitalistic fascist pig or a freaky left-wing pinko commie tree-hugger.  Right?  And the inverse is true as well; the last thing I want is for someone to not buy my book because he knows I have political or religious beliefs that swing opposite to his own.

Granted, the lessons on opinions and business are prevalent throughout the business world.  Both The Huffington Post (an admittedly left-wing publication) and Forbes (an admittedly right-wing publication) published articles linked here that described the pain the Papa John's, Denny's, and Applebee's brands all went through when their chief executive staff decided to open up to the public their opinions on a fairly business-oriented yet highly politically-polarized topic.  Both articles can be summarized fairly simply: "Ouch, man, that frickin' hurt."  Just don't do it, the message is--business is business is business, and it should never be combined with politics.

It must be noted that these brands are all national, with millions, if not billions, of dollars of cash in reserve.  What's a poor Indie author, who looks forward to his next Remittance Advice from Amazon as my Chihuahua looks forward to her next full food bowl, to do?

My recommendation?  Be real.

First of all, I'm not saying be stupid.  Separate your brand from your private Facebook.  My own web page has the most boring of news on it; all of that crap is completely unrelated to the newest information regarding the Benghazi attack or the health care law or anything else you'll read about on CNN.  Granted, when "The Other Stephen King Wins ____ Award" is on CNN, you bet my site will match, but that won't be political.  When I Tweet, as I often do, it's either a business-related Tweet or a quote of the day or something about Survivor, or something--anything--else but politics.  My writing is not about politics, period.

On my personal page, though, I do express my fairly strong opinions.  With that said, I have to say I've never seen a dip in sales as a result of doing so.  That's most likely because I've separated the brand from the person.

Besides, nearly everybody on my Friends list has either bought my books, or not bought my books, and they're very unlikely to cross the line between the two options.  

That said, I've also tempered my own opinions over time.  It's not a business move, but rather a personal one that kinda follows along with the logic of Twain.  Years ago, before Facebook, I was a member of my West Point class's listserv.  I found a particularly left-leaning Bill Maher quote funny, and I posted it there, and oy, vey, was there a backlash.  As Facebook rose in popularity I made friends on both sides of the spectrum, and in turn I lost friends on both sides of the spectrum as I leaped in with both feet and shared my opinion.


I'm showing far more restraint these days, though.  A friend posted a thread recently that complained about a televised crowd not rising entirely for the National Anthem--a complaint I'll share.  But in five or six comments the thread had denigrated to blaming that behavior on the President.  I read, thought about replying, and then continued scrolling.  Nice job, right?

It's hard, though, as an author especially, to not have an opinion, and it's also hard to not bring your powers of linguistics to bear in expressing that opinion.  To a certain extent, though, it's a requirement.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

"A mother is a person who seeing there are only four slices of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie." - Tenneva Jordan

"The phrase 'working mother' is redundant." - Jane Sellman

"Sweater, n.: A garment worn by a child when its mother is feeling chilly." - Ambrose Bierce

"He is a poor son whose sonship does not make him desire to serve all men's mothers." - Harry Emerson Fosdick

"A mother's arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them." - Victor Hugo

"A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.  And candy!  You take a box to Mother--and then eat most of it yourself.  A petty sentiment." - Anna Jarvis, credited founder of Mother's Day

(Brief disclaimer: nearly everything factual that I present in this blog was obtained from the Wikipedia page on Mother's Day or the Wikipedia page on Mother's Day (U.S. version).  Yes, yes, I despise Wikipedia as a cited source as much as you do, but the Internet connection where I'm staying is so awful I only get what I'm looking for on every other or every third click, and I don't have the patience for real research under that condition.)

Anal retentive hun that I am, I checked.  I haven't written about Mother's Day yet, in the more than two years I've been running this blog.  Shame on me.  A more generally-important topic can't be found--after all, every one of us either is a mother, or has one.  So let me begin by saying, for what is apparently the first time on this blog:

Happy Mother's Day!!!

Frankly, I used to hate Mother's Day, and for the same reason its very founder protested against the holiday just a few years after she successfully lobbied its enactment.  I like giving gifts.  I enjoy expressing loving sentiments.  On the other hand, I despise standing in line with all the other guys in the city waiting to spend our money on requisite cards and flowers.

Fact is, Mother's Day is one of a few holidays (second in my mind only to Valentine's Day) when retailers have us right where they want us: right smack in the wallets, and they're hanging on for dear cash.

It wasn't always that way, of course, but the transition apparently didn't take long.

The history: Ann Jarvis, mother of the holiday's founder, used the term in an extraordinarily useful way when a few years after the Civil War ended she created "Mother's Friendship Day" to reunite families that had been divided by that horrific series of events.  She had also created "Mother's Day Work Clubs" that were intended to improve sanitation and health for both Union and Confederate encampments.  She expressed to her daughter, Anna, a desire to mold these activities into an event honoring mothers, but she passed away in May, 1905, before that could happen.

Then Anna picked up the torch.  In May, 1907, two years after her mother's death, they held a Mother's Day service in the West Virginia church where Ann had taught Sunday school.  By the next year, Anna had enlisted the aid of John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia multi-millionaire who is often credited as the father of modern marketing (among his credits: the money-back guarantee).  Not only did they hold a Mother's Day service at the same church in May, 1908, but at the same time Wanamaker also held a much larger celebration in his store (go figure). 

Money talked as loudly back then as it does today, and so by 1910 West Virginia had declared Mother's Day an official holiday, and in May, 1914, the United States followed West Virginia's lead (yeah, I know, I can't believe I just typed that either).  Meanwhile Anna kept campaigning for the holiday's acceptance internationally, apparently right up to the point when she started campaigning against it for its rabid commercialism.

The holiday's acceptance world-wide seems to fall into three rough camps.  You'll see if you visit the overall holiday Wikipedia page I linked above that there are a lot of countries that celebrate Mother's Day on the same day we here in the U.S. do: second Sunday in May.  Why a Sunday?  Well, it was created by making it into a Sunday service, and where better to celebrate motherhood than the church?  In fact, according to my good Wikibuddies over there, Mother's Day is the third most attended church day in the year, falling only behind Christmas and Easter.  Ain't that cool?

So anyway, that's the first camp: "we'll follow along with the United States."  There's a second camp, the "yes, we'll celebrate mothers, but we'll not do it like the United States because they're so commercialized," and a third camp, the "United States can bugger off; we already have our holidays set" group.

The Wikipedia site has a rather long list of different nations' ways of celebrating the holiday.  I won't repeat all of it here, but at points it makes for an entertaining read.  Mexico, for example, has an interesting Mother's Day history; at one point apparently women were allowed to retrieve their sewing machines from the national charity/pawn shop for free on that day.  Yeah, that practice might be a little gender-insensitive, but then again the whole holiday's rather gender-centric, right? 

I don't want to sully my blog page with the story, but I'll suggest that you read under Germany what the Nazi Party did to the holiday.  It's worth considering how even a benign (if expensive) holiday can become a propaganda tool to the extreme. 

So, back to one of my favorite topics: me.  I truly used to despise Mother's Day as the embodiment of all things gilded and fake.  Used to hate buying and sending cards for that reason.

Then my mother got sick.  A few years later the most important woman in the world to me passed away.  She was a strong woman who had to fight for her children and her own safety several times.  Even riddled with cancer, she still insisted on taking care of her husband and on making sure their house was set when we came to visit--something we didn't do as often as we should have, admittedly. 

Now?  I'm still against commercialism.  I'd still rather not stand in line to buy a card.  But now, all the commercialism the world has to offer is--well, it's not such a big deal.  Part of me wishes I'd taken the time back then to buy more crappy, sappy cards for Mother's Day.

Regardless, I can't change what is past.  What I can do, though, is lay tribute where it is due, and today merely amplifies the fact that I owe much more than I can ever repay to my mother.

The mother of two great kids who I married?  We celebrate a little differently than most; every Mother's Day we go to a paint-a-pot place and create stuff together.  Yes, it's still spending money, but it's creating useful things in a fun way while spending time together, and we all enjoy it.  Every year but this one, of course, because we're over 800 miles apart.  I've already located a shop where we can go in June, though, once we are all back together here in Memphis.  

So thank you for reading my long history and tribute, and if your mother is still around, give her an extra hug today, okay?  And even--gah, I can't believe I'm saying this--get her an extra-special card or flowers.   


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 22: Lessons Learned

Over the years, and the trips up and down the Al-Can, I've learned quite a few things.  Here they are, in a rather random order.

Appearances matter, but only a little.

Some of the coolest stops we made along the Al-Can have also been some of the trashiest-looking.  To me, there's nothing cooler than walking into a building that I'm not quite sure how it's still standing against the annually brutal snowfall and then engaging an old-timer in a discussion of how things are and how they used to be.  Remember my description of Johnson's Crossing?  The renovation made it look nicer, but I think the place lost a lot in the translation.  

No matter how cool you think your rig is, someone else will think otherwise.

I was really rather proud of my antique Airstream travel trailer, built in 1954.  Yet I was turned away from more than one campground where they didn't want any "antiques," no matter how well-maintained, or any other trailer for that matter that was older than X (usually 10) years.  Ultimately it didn't matter much; we always found a place to park it.

The realities of physics matter more over the long haul than the short.

Both cargo trailers I've hauled the length of the Al-Can failed me.  One looked good but wasn't built well--no springs, cheap axles, etc.  When overloaded it kept going for a great many miles, but when physics finally caught up it got me at the worst time.  The second trailer was much better: nicely built, sprung axles, etc.  Unfortunately it, too, had cheaper axles that weren't capable of handling a lot of weight; it had been built primarily as a rolling workshop.  It, like its predecessor, bravely kept going for thousands of miles, and also like its predecessor, it gave me troubles in a really bad place. 

Planning a journey is important, and yet....

It's important to figure out roughly how much fuel it'll take you and what it'll cost to the nearest hundred dollars or so, and then to plan for that expense.  It's also important to consider what you'll do in the event of a wheel blowout or some such incident.  Then there's always the "where are we going to sleep" question to consider.  And yet....

...thinking the journey will go as planned is folly

No matter how good you are, you're gonna forget something.  Just when you've got everything un-forgotten, then, Mother Nature is likely to throw something--a forest fire, a mudslide, a blizzard, something--at you.  If not that, you might get a flat tire or four (yes, it's possible to launch into one of the graveled construction spots and lose all four tires at once).  On a smaller scale, keeping rigidly to a time schedule for the day makes it really easy to miss out on conversations with people you meet along the way, and those are often the parts of the journey that turn out to be the most meaningful later on.

People are people--even those who like to say "eh" a lot, eh?

Saying you're from Alaska yields widely varying results depending on where you're from--near Edmonton, it granted us an enthusiastic, almost heroic, welcome, as it did once or twice in Montana as well.  But once the hoopla is over, no matter where each of the participants in the conversation is from, it still boils down to a conversation between two people.  We like to talk about others in terms of generalizations, as in "Canadians are ____" or "Alaskans are ____" or "Texans are ______," but that's really all bullshit once you make a connection and a real conversation begins. 

Never pass by a gas station (or a nice bathroom) without stopping

The thing about the Alaska Highway is that you never know if the next gas station along the way will be open.  That's especially true outside of tourist season.  It's easy to get so focused on driving and making your time ticks that you leave a valuable refueling (or emptying) point in your dust.  Then again, life's kind of like that in general, isn't it?

Reaching one ending doesn't mean you can stop.

It's always been strange to me that they make such a big deal out of Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway.  Mile Zero, if you recall that post, is out in the middle of British Columbia.  There's absolutely nothing bad about Dawson Creek, mind you, but from the journey-long perspective, what exactly are you supposed to do when you reach Mile Zero?  Stop?  "Okay, I reached the end, I'm done--oh, look at those pretty trees"?  No.  If you're driving to Colorado, or to Mississippi, then you keep driving to Colorado, or to Mississippi.  That doesn't mean you can't stop and celebrate, and maybe even dart across one and a half (ish) lanes of frighteningly busy traffic circle to brave a picture with the Mile Zero post.

Yay, you made it that far!

Now keep going.

Hope you enjoyed!


Friday, May 10, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 21: South, to Montana

The Alaska Highway officially ends at Dawson Creek, Mile Zero.  From there, there are several ways to get back to the United States, each one headed a different direction.  Yes, yes, I know "south" is what you thought at first, and you're correct.  But there's southwest toward Washington, due south toward Montana, and there are also options going southeast down roads I have yet to follow. 

In 1999 we were headed to Colorado, which is pretty close to due south of the Montana main crossing site.  Thus, we drove straight down Canada Highway 2 to Canada Highway 4 to the town of Coutts, Alberta, which is at the northern end of the border crossing.  A short time later we were in Sweetgrass, Montana, and back on U.S. soil. That route took a day and a partial; we'd left Edmonton the evening prior and made it a few miles down the road to Red Deer, and the next day at about midnight we made it to the gate.

That route, by the way, is what you're looking for if you want a quick pathway either up to the Alaska Highway or back to the States from it.  After experiencing the bumpy two-lane road that is the Al-Can, the four-lane highway south of Edmonton seems positively metropolitan.  Abruptly so, too--you come out of "the woods" into Edmonton, hang a southward turn, and suddenly you're in megalane heaven.

I've picked on Calgary, the other large city you'll come to, and I recognize that it's not entirely fair that I do so.  All that I know of Calgary, after all, is that it's home to a huge rodeo every year, and that from the highway it appears to consist nearly entirely of identical little box-like homes.

I'm sure somebody thinks identical little box-like homes are charming.  I'm just not one of those somebodies.

On that trip, by the way, I made a point of recording that we'd stopped for dinner at the Pizzaberg Cafe in Okotoks, and how great the experience was.  Good food, good prices, and a fabulous host were what I said.  I haven't stopped by there since, despite my logged desire to do so.  Okotoks, Alberta, just isn't my normal stompin' ground. 

The border crossing on that route is completely different from every other station I've seen, also.  That crossing connects U.S. Interstate 15 to Canadian Highway 4, and it's one of the major trade routes between the two nations.  Thus, if you imagine most of the border crossing sites as a corner shoppette, that crossing is more of a Mega-WalMart or a Super-Target.  It sports multiple lanes going both directions, they cater to commercial shipments of all sizes, and they staff it 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It's awesome.

The other way out of Alberta into Montana is a bit different.

To get there, you actually stay on Highway 2 all the way down to Carway, Alberta.  Then you slip through a little one-lane post which actually feels like it's out in the middle of the Montana plains, and you end up on U.S. Highway 89 just outside of Piegan, Montana.  That's the gate where I had a customs officer try to demand a full bill of lading for my UHaul.  Now, maybe he was right to do so, or maybe he was just being a bit overly full of himself; I'm not sure.  I know my own opinion matches those of several friends I have that he was really feeling his Border Guard Wheaties that day.  Still, the experience underlines my warning that, especially if you're going to a more rural crossing toward the beginning of the season as we were, make sure all your ducks are in whatever row they might be expected to hold.

Also, as I've suggested before, check the open hours of whichever crossing you expect to use.  The great big crossing is open 24/7, but the one we went through in 2009 is only open from 7 am to 11 pm.  Others are open even fewer hours, based on the traffic through them, so be prepared.  The last thing you want is to have to turn around at the barred gate to head back up the road looking for a place to sleep for the night.

There are, of course, other ways to make it to/from the start of the Alaska Highway.  Granted, the trip up through Alberta to Edmonton and then over is the fastest and easiest, but I've gone other routes.

My first time, driving up to Alaska, we happened to cross in Idaho.  There was only one crossing there that I know of, and the road up into British Columbia from that point takes you through a whole bunch of places with names ending in "Provincial Park."  Sounds cool, doesn't it?  Remember what I said in a previous post about how scenic journeys are usually also dang hard on a burdened vehicle?  It was especially true on that trip, as we passed through Top of the World Provincial Park which, as its name suggests, requires quite a bit of climbing to get there.

I'll say this: it's an ooh and ahh moment once you're there at the Top of the World; I'd never seen a glacier before, and the road came up out of a hairpin turn to level out right under the face of a glacier.  Spectacular, it was.  Scary, it was, too.

The next time we headed north we were coming from California, so we crossed near Blaine, Washington, and jumped onto nearly Canada Highway 1.  We were expecting to stay on Highway 1 as it lumbered north and then take 99 toward the city of Prince George, but there was a mudslide that blocked that route.  Thus, we ended up staying on the main road, Highway 5, as it lumbered to and through Kamloops.  I recall very little about Kamloops other than the fact that the name is awfully fun to say.

Along the way, the first trip, we ended up passing through a quaint, and spectacularly beautiful, area known to the world as Banff.  Only later did I find out that it's a world-class resort.  If I'd'a had the Internet back then in 1995, I would'a probably been more prepared.  I still kick myself for not taking pictures. 

We passed through the City of Prince George several times in our western routes up, and each time through we enjoyed the passage.  You really don't pass through many "the City of" anythings en route to Alaska, and hitting a metropolitan area like Prince George is a treat.  At 80K population it's only middling-large as cities go, but that's plenty big enough to have its own Costco.  It's also a gorgeously designed town, nestled into hills and forests as it is.  True, it doesn't host the largest mall in the world, but the charm of Prince George is quite the experience regardless.

No matter which route you take to/from the start of the Al-Can, then, you're in for a treat.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 20: Edmonton

I've had two very different experiences in Edmonton, both quite pleasant, each a decade apart.

The first time I stopped and enjoyed a respite in Alberta's capital city, we weren't in a hurry at all.  We'd suffered all the worst the journey could throw at us, or at least so we thought, and all we really had to do at that point was make it down to Colorado by the time my grad school started.  This was in early July, so we had plenty of time.

We'd also been looking forward to the stay.  My wife at the time had met a wonderful First Nations woman at an Anchorage drumming event, and they'd corresponded often.  Thus, we arrived to find a small circle of Canadian friends to show us around.

Show us around, they did.  We went as a group to experience the world's largest shopping mall, and it was a true experience.  They have two roller coasters, an ice rink, an old Spanish galleon, a water park, an indoor putt-putt course, and, um, what else?  Oh, right--lots and lots of stores.  Oh, and a strip of bars that they jokingly refer to as "Bourbon Street."

At least, I think it's meant as a joke.  I've been to Bourbon Street in New Orleans and the only real similarity is that both have a lot of places to drink.  Then again, after you've been on the Al-Can for a while, the drinking part is likely to be the greatest part of what you're interested in, so maybe it's apropos after all. 

In addition to having a great time at the mall, we also enjoyed watching movies--yes! they have movies in Canada!--as well as an evening of bingo.  Only, the place they took us didn't play bingo quite like we did in Anchorage.  Instead, they played bingo in the same attitude with which they piloted their cars--fast and furious.  We were used to sitting there with four or five cards, going "Okay, B15--not on that card, here it is on this card, not on this card, not on that card...."  A couple of minutes later, then, the caller would yell another spot.

Not in Edmonton.

They looked at us kind of funny when we asked about playing more than one card at a time, and we quickly found out why.  You've got just enough time to find B15 and mark it before the next spot is being called out.  And then the next.  And then the next.  It's bingo on crack.  I felt like I was playing Whack-A-Mole with the dauber.

It was cool to learn that my Blockbuster card from Anchorage would work in Edmonton.  Granted, that's a relic these days, but at the time we didn't have a big Red Box to slide a credit card into and then catch the movie it spits out at us.  The card had to work, or else, and the store manager was as surprised as I was that it did.  Hell, my Blockbuster card from Anchorage didn't even work in every store in Anchorage.

After a few enjoyable days in Edmonton, we continued our journey with two new tires on the cargo trailer.

The next trip was focused entirely on the mall; no power bingo for us.  I'd been telling the family about the great big mall up there in Edmonton and they were really excited to get there.

Funny thing is, you wouldn't expect the biggest mall in the world to be difficult to find, but it was.  The first trip I'd been driven there by friends.  Also, there some construction along the way that my GPS didn't know anything about, and it didn't help that it's actually called the West Edmonton Mall.  Bertha (my GPS) didn't know which mall I was talking about until I added the "West" part, and saucy disembodied voice that she is, she didn't seem to give a crap which mall is biggest.

We finally arrived, and I was ecstatic to find overnight parking in the hotel's section of the mall lot despite the fact that we were in a huge truck towing another truck.  We checked into the Fantasyland Hotel with almost giddy elation, selecting as we did to stay in the Polynesian themed room.  See, the themes rooms cost a bit more, but they have killer amenities.  The Polynesian room, in fact, had just what we were looking for: a deep jetted tub.  We hadn't been in the room for five minutes before we were filling the tub up with hot water.  Everybody put on our bathing suits (hey, the teenage girl was with us, and--well, you know) and we shared a heavenly group soak that was as relaxing as it was cleansing. 

Ahhhh....  There's just no feeling in the world like going from as grimy as we were to a hot jacuzzi tub.

Then we went to dinner.  By the time we were done with our soak many of the mall's restaurants were closed, but we still managed to suffer through a steak or two.  You can see in the picture that I enjoyed a well-seasoned and well-cooked chunk of red meat, when I managed to keep my eyes open, anyway.  Sated, we slogged back to our room and crashed.

The next day we really enjoyed the mall.  The water park there is incredible, as are many other parts.  My cell phone's camera was acting up, though, so most of the pictures I took weren't worth saving.  Ah, well--you'll have to just believe me.

We slept well again the next night, and then, so emboldened, we turned the nose of the UHaul due south and continued the journey.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Al-Can Adventures Part 19: On to Edmonton

The Alaska Highway literature says that the beginning point of the highway--Mile Zero--is at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.  I'm not going to argue about that; there is some historical significance to Dawson Creek, and there are some touristy kinds of things to do there as a result.  There's a great big obelisk, for example, right in the middle of the intersection where construction on the Alaska Highway began so many years ago. 

As a cool historical spot, then, Dawson Creek is indeed pretty cool.  As a destination, though, it's--well, never been that for me.  Personally, I've never found a reason to stop there besides looking at the Mile Zero sign (a feat that's difficult to manage in the traffic if you're piloting a rig of any size) and refueling.  Granted, the official Dawson Creek site suggests that they have a lot to do, including an interpretive center, a museum, and an art gallery.  If you've read my previous posts, though, you know why by the time I get to Dawson Creek I neither need nor want any more interpretive anything; instead, I just want off the dang highway. 

Speaking of refueling--that shocked me this last time through.  The prior trips, fuel between (but exclusive of) Fort St. John and Tok was really stupidly expensive, but it rang up at fairly normal prices otherwise.  This last trip I still paid more than a dollar a liter even in Dawson Creek.  That hurt, man.  It really hurt.

So coming south, if your trip timer is stuck in the same region of "hurry!" that mine usually is, you'll probably just stop for brief photos of Mile 0 but otherwise you'll be looking toward Edmonton as a true destination.  That city does, after all, contain the world's biggest mall, which is in turn connected to a wonderful hotel with theme rooms and jacuzzi tubs.  I'm serious--after the ruggedness of the Alaska Highway, you'll feel like you're in paradise once you hit Edmonton.

But you have to get there first.

And the start to that getting there, at least insofar as this post is concerned, is Fort St. John, milepost 47 and a veritable metropolis at 18,000 residents.  My log book says of our arrival: "Civilization!  2:00, hit big Shell station, gas less than 60 cents/liter!  I was getting really tired of paying close to 70 cents/liter [note: keep in mind this was 1999; ten years later we were paying over a dollar a liter through most of the drive].  Air conditioning!  Ice!  Yeah!  Fort St. John--really pretty town.  Only problem--hill climbing out of the Peace River Valley is a real boogermotherbear."

Once you've had your fill of ice for your drinks and are ready to leave Fort St. John, then, your first and hardest challenge is to conquer the death hill from hell.  You'll exit town on the highway, following signs to Dawson Creek and Edmonton, and then cross over the Peace River.  After that, it's a sharp left and then climb, climb, climb, for miles.  If you're in a car that's not terribly overburdened, it's probably no big deal.  Rigs, though, will need to watch your speed and RPMs, as it's really easy to red-line there.  South-bounders (toward Edmonton), just keep on chugging upward in whatever transmission gear is most comfortable to you, your engine, and your rate of forward progress.

Stephen's Rule of Alaska Highway hill-climbing: no matter how slow, any speed forward is better than going backward.  I know, that's not too erudite, but do the Al-Can once or twice and trust me, you'll get it.

North-bounders, watch your brakes.  It's quite easy to vaporize your brake pads on your way down this hill as you see the town of Fort St. John in the distance.

Once you summit the climb, rejoice!  The tough parts of the drive are pretty much over, so long as you survive the Alberta drivers--they're just a skosh aggressive (a skosh, hell--by and large they make Jersey drivers seem downright patient and pleasant).  It is beautiful; as you summit the hill you come into canola country, and vast fields of brilliant yellow flowers await.  The plains around Fort St. John are a major source of canola seed, used to make one of the main ingredients in most vegetable oils in our supermarkets.  Whether that fact excites you or not isn't really important; the truth is that the fields are beautiful as hell when they're blooming.

Along the way, despite the fact that the tough climbs are over, there are still ups and downs.  It becomes a fairly typical road, though.  Most times I've been this path I've flown relatively smoothly from there to Edmonton, but in 1999 we were meeting friends in Edmonton and so we wanted to stop along the way to keep from arriving too late at night.  Here's the excerpt from the log book:

"Pulled into Sturgeon Lake First Nation campground--had the feel of a ghost town!  Looked around and noticed the generator/laundry room burned to the ground, apparently recently.  Headed next door to Williamson Provincial Campground.  Nice place.  Fairly empty.  Found a hookup spot quickly and learned why it was fairly empty--skeeters!  Thousands and thousands swarmed us.  Got hunkered down in the trailer.  Eventually had a skeeter-free night."

For what it's worth, the Sturgeon Lake First Nation campground site hosts pictures that suggest that the campground has been rebuilt and is currently up to date on rather nice facilities.  They probably still have their flying pests, of course, but those are fairly ubiquitous in that region.  Regardless, I still didn't stop there this last trip, as I was hell-bound to get to Edmonton and its mall.  And, I should add, the mall's fabulous hotel, where a real bathtub awaited.

Coming soon: yes, I have pictures of that bathtub.