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Archive for July, 2011

Sometimes when I’m in the mood, I like to write book reviews. These aren’t reviews in a traditional sense because I’m not a professional book reviewer. You might say they are, well, weird. Some of my acquaintances have said so anyway.

Take the one I wrote about a Nicholas Sparks book titled The True Believer. The book is about a guy who exposes so-called supernatural hoaxes. He travels to a small town to check on some mysterious lights and falls in love with the town librarian.

I thought this was a rather novel theme, something like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man who travels to a small town in Iowa for the express purpose of conning the whole town into buying 76 trombones and falls in love with Marion the Librarian.

Only, and this is an important only, Sparks’ protagonist was a guy from New York dressed all in black with a sissy name. Would any self-respecting librarian, the most beautiful girl in the county, ever, under any circumstances in real life, fall in love with someone named Jeremy Marsh?

Not on your tinny tin tin, girlie girl, I thought.

But I was wrong. No more than two days passed before the librarian and Jeremy were in a secluded cabin on a secluded beach engaged in a steamy make-out session which, in the 21st Century, passes for romance and never ending love.

This is where I learned, too, that a handsome dude from afar will draw women like flies even if he were named Shirley. It’s also when it dawned on me that a man can have the manliest of names, the most stable of names, a name signifying respect, strength, and status, a name like, say, Robert, and he will never be able to con a beautiful librarian into a secluded cabin anywhere in the universe if he looks like Curly, Larry, or Moe.

These are important life’s lessons. If you just don’t have it, pal, your only tactic may be the Pity Ploy. I had a friend in high school that actually looked so pitiable that every woman in town was convinced that she and only she had the sheer animal magnetism to cheer him up. This guy was elated more times than anyone can remember.

Somehow, as I read True Believer, I had the feeling that Jeremy Marsh gave off pity signals and Beautiful Small Town Librarian Lexie’s tender heart went out to him.

That’s when I decided to offer Nicholas Sparks some advice on developing manly male characters. I thus created from scratch an original plot about a cowboy who doubled as a deputy sheriff. At the end of the story, he has to choose between his horse and the beautiful ranch maiden.

As the sun sinks slowly in the West, our hero tips his hat to the lovely maiden and rides slowly away on his faithful horse Jeremy. Now that, by God, is a Western romance story.

Seriously, though, I like the books of Nicholas Sparks. I’ve probably read most of them, and although I wrote a semi-satirical look at True Believer, I liked the book.  He does a good deal of research for his writings and, aside from the rather tortured and problematic romance he injects into them, he writes like an investigator in this case of supernatural phenomena. He knows the subject matter and that is quite a feat for a writer who isn’t an expert in the field.

On the other hand, I am familiar with the writings of an author who writes from experience. She lives a somewhat isolated life in Nevada’s Cowboy Country, and when she writes about ranch life, she knows what she is talking about. How would I know this? When a writer talks about feeding horses with hay flakes, any country boy or girl can tell you, she knows hay and she knows horses.

Her name is Jeannie Watt and she writes Harlequin Super Romances. Ordinarily, I am not a reader of romances but I was drawn to her writings when I stumbled across one of her books on the bottom shelf of a book rack in a Safeway store in the center of Oahu in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Since then, I’ve read all of her books and reviewed most of them on Amazon.

Which brings up one of the guiding principles behind all of my book reviews: I only review books that I like and which I can write about positively. An author works hard to write a publishable book. I can’t write a book because I have the attention span of a gnat. Even writing this essay tasks me.

I thus simply refuse to write a negative review. Book reviews are, after all, merely the opinion of the reviewer. And opinions vary. Let the pros pan a book. I respect an author’s hard work. Who am I to diminish that effort?

Okay, that’s pretty much all of my thoughts on writing a book review. If you want to write one but have hesitated, put aside your reluctance and just do it.

Note: This is a rather unfocused essay that wanders a little bit. But that’s just my style. Maybe one of these I’ll produce a coherent piece worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. ‘Til then, grin and bear it.

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While Washington burns and the pols fiddle around, it’s time to pay attention to a few other deficits that have remained unnoticed in the media furor over Boehner, Barack, and Big Bucks.

Civility

There was a time in this country when American politicians were civil to one another. They’d go to work, argue, and then repair to the nearest pub for some congenial elbow bending. Not now. Congressmen feel free to shout, “You lie,” to the president while he is giving his constitutionally-mandated State of the Union Address.

This open breach of respect is only one example of a strain of behavior that has infected the American public to a degree unknown in previous eras. Fueled in large part by the anonymity afforded by the internet, it isn’t unusual to find the vilest comments in response to blogs, newspaper articles, and television reports. Hate merchants become millionaires by screaming their odious messages 24-hours a day over radio and television. Hate sells, which I find to be the most disgusting element in our disappearing ability to communicate coherently in a civil manner. Is it any wonder the Congress has entirely lost its ability to function as the Constitution intended?

Compassion

We seem to have lost a sense of empathy for those among us who are less fortunate through no fault of their own. Children always come to mind when I think about helping others. Every year in this country there are roughly 3,000,000 reported cases of child abuse. Millions of children in this, the richest country on earth, go to sleep hungry. This is a disgusting state of affairs.

Our treatment of the elderly and the infirm is no better than our disdain for the welfare of our children.  There is a move underway to reduce or eliminate social security, Medicare, and Medicaid, whose primary beneficiaries are the elderly. Imagine a million seniors suddenly without the means to buy groceries, pay rent, and afford medical care. We seem to forget that those receiving social security checks aren’t banking those funds for a rainy day. They are spending the money immediately on the basic necessities of life.

Also at the top of the scale of disgust is our treatment of veterans, Americans who have put their lives on the line for the draft-dodging elites among us and who as a result now suffer excruciating physical and emotional damage. Some in congress want to reduce the minor amounts of funding now available for veterans’ care and rehabilitation. How cheap, how low, can American elites go in the treatment of the very individuals who have protected their way of life?

Cooperation

Contrary to the American myth of the rugged individualist, cooperation is the social mechanism through which we develop great ideas, initiate powerful governing concepts, and accomplish great tasks. George Washington didn’t win the Revolutionary War single-handedly. Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves all alone. The Greatest Generation did not act individually when they slogged through foot deep mud across France and Germany. They did not run around like chickens with their heads cut off as they hopped from Pacific island to Pacific island toward Japan.  Imagine the chaos if everyone had said “It’s my way or the highway.”

Causes

The clearest sign that we’ve lost the ability to sustain the greatness of prior generations and achieve greatness on our own is the chaotic inability of governments at all levels in this country to function as governing bodies rather than as ideologically programmed lock-step un-dead hordes. Ideology today is the bane of our existence. It allows no room for dissent or for the accommodation that is necessary in a democratic political system. The two-party system isn’t much better, but it at least it recognized an essential need for accommodation.

Can We Recover

Yes, but change requires courage, determination, and common-sense. Thinking men and women must come together in a concerted effort to dislodge the ideological and monied interests that have taken control of our once-sacrosanct representative democracy.

We need to abandon the one-dollar-one-vote philosophy of the current Supreme Court and return to the one-person-one vote practice that formed the basis of our democracy before corporations became people.

Most of all, we need to realize that we are all in this together. Adam Smith once postulated that when one prospers all prosper. We need to believe that when one suffers, we all suffer. We need to become a unified society rather than an atomistic bunch of anonymous rugged individuals. Perhaps John Donne expressed it most succinctly.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee—John Donne

I am convinced that a renewed recognition of our unity would cause the mess in Washington to disappear in a puff of smoke            

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When men are boys, they’re supposed to play sports. Some might argue that men are always boys and there is some merit to that. But I’m talking about the span of years when male muscles are at their most resilient and reflexes sharpest.

For the average boy, this begins early, in kindergarten I would venture, the stage of development when kids are thrown together for the first time and little boys feel the first stirrings of dominance.  This will take the form of wrestling and running.

“Dad,” some boy will say proudly while standing in front of his dad after the first day of school, “I beat Charles today in wrestling,” to which Dad will puff up, grin, and dance around a little because Charles’ dad used to whip his ass every day from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Naturally, the boy will forget to mention that Charles’ sister Charlene knocked him down later with a straight right. It was just a fluke. Girls don’t matter. Besides, she was kind of cute, unlike Charles who everyone called Monk because he looked like a monkey.

As the school years pass, the contest for male dominance will continue and by the time the boys reach high school, an informal athletic pecking order will have become recognized. We know Bill will become an All-State halfback and go on to play college football.

We know Charles will become the fastest forward in the state and eventually wind up leading UCLA to a national championship.

And we know Charlene will become the homecoming queen, lusted after by the football heroes and desired by tinhorn Hollywood scouts who will tell their best lies to entice her into a career as a stripper.

And the rest of us? The vast number who didn’t play football or basketball?

When we grew up, we lied about our sporting exploits.

“The older we get, the better we used to be,” some middle-aged bookkeeper once said in a moment of inebriated wisdom.

He summed it up neatly, and when the truth of his words hit us, we avoided each other’s eyes and ordered another beer.

Finally, one guy broke the embarrassed silence. “Whatever happened to Charlene?” he wondered.

“Didn’t you hear?” I said more accusatory than inquisitively. “She was on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team.”

“And she had her own SI bikini calendar,” another guy said.

“Jeez,” Sports Failure piped up, “We can’t even beat the women.”

“Yes,” I said, “That’s why we lie.”

The minute the words came out, my memory went back to my first big one.

“Dad, I beat Charles in wrestling today.”

Now that I look at it in retrospect, my lie sounds amazingly similar to the “mis-spokes” of a heap of powerful politicians.

I’m not sure why I wrote this. I think it’s because I’m bored and just wanted to fritter away some time.

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How many of you remember when you were in the second grade? I’m no spring chicken but I remember those days well.

I remember walking to school in the dead of winter when the cold and the wind numbed my lips to the point that I could only mumble as I entered the square brick building and felt the welcome heat inside.

I remember the feel of warm wind in April as the grass began to turn from brown to green and flowers began to bloom.

I remember my teacher, whose name I won’t mention because her descendents know me, as a tough, no nonsense woman who had a habit of walking around the room while we worked and tapping her pencil on the top of one unfortunate kid’s head after another.

We never actually figured out the purpose behind her habit but my guess was that we had somehow incurred her displeasure.

That’s just a wild guess based of the pain I felt after about twenty taps from the eraser end of her pencil. Would a second grade teacher be so cruel as to tap a kid’s head for no reason?

Eventually, I reached a time when I did my level best never to twitch a muscle for fear of bringing her pencil down on my head for the umpteenth time. This was tough because I was a fidgety kid.

When recess rolled around, I would bolt out the door and down the stairs onto the grassy play area before the bell stopped echoing. In later years, I made the track team, a fact I attributed to the training of my second grade teacher.

I remember a distant cousin (everyone was a distant cousin in my town) walking up to me one beautiful spring day and saying, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” to which I responded naively by sticking my hand in my pocket and removing a pencil. I assure you that I had no concept at that time of phallic symbols

I remember how happy I felt when the second grade was finished and I made it to the third. My third grade teacher was an amiable woman, always smiling and soft spoken. She was an absolute joy, a person born to teach kids.

The other night, I woke up in a sweat. I had been dreaming about the second grade and the tap, tap, tapping of a pencil on my head.

I even remembered my distant cousin offering to show me hers if I would show her mine. Of course by now I understand fully the meaning of a phallic symbol.

Only, the phallic symbol I visualized in my dream was a shaft wrapped in counterfeit dollar bills wielded by a man whose face looked eerily like Eric Cantor’s.

I suddenly knew the perfect solution to the debt crisis.

Send a few second grade teachers to D.C. to run the U.S. Congress.

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We all have our favorite things, moments that mean something to us, activities that relax us, toys that give us great pleasure. Here are five of mine.

Showers. I am not talking about rain showers, although I enjoy a walk in the rain on a hot and humid day. I’m talking about standing under a shower as soon as I get out of bed with the water at full blast and the temperature set to my liking. This will usually mean a steaming hot flow on a cold day and a cold stream when the temp is 105. I love to stand with the flow hitting my head and shoulders with the force of a fire hose until I finally sense that I have other work waiting. But even then, I don’t want to step out of the shower and break the spell. A good shower is magical.

Maps. I love to read maps. I don’t care what kind of map it is or what language the map is in. I delight in comparing place names in a foreign language with their English equivalent. Everywhere I travel, I make sure to bring at least one map of that place home. The more detailed the map the more I like it. I once bought a topographic atlas of Nevada with the location of ranches in it. The maps were so detailed they contained Forest Service trails and the names of tiny creeks. That’s my kind of map.

Facebook Friends. The people who have friended me and the ones I have friended have turned out to be pretty doggoned good and decent people even though the only ones I have actually met in person are relatives and a few personal friends I knew before joining Facebook. Still, it isn’t hard to get a handle on someone if you read their comments carefully over a period of time. In a very few cases, I have come to treasure my Facebook friendship just as much if not more than my friendship with someone I’ve met. For some reason that I haven’t dwelled on but which someone pointed out to me, most of my friends are women. My immediate thought was, “Well, so, yeah, tweedle dee dee, tweedle dee dum…” and I let it drop. Life is as it is. I’ve deliberately kept the number of my friends small because I have a short attention span. Others may have a thousand or more friends, but I can’t keep track of that many. I can’t even count that high. I prefer quality over quantity anyway. And that’s just what I have. A fine group of Facebook Friends that I enjoy communicating with.

Music. I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it. But I love to listen to music and I have a good ear, good enough to recognize a song that I’ve heard only once. In this respect, genetics has been unkind. My mother and all of her siblings and all of her brother’s kids can sing and play guitars like pros. Even my wife could play a harmonica. So, here I am surrounded by musicians and all I can do is croak like a frog when someone suggests a sing-a-long. On the other hand, I can catch a beat as fast as a frog’s tongue can snap a bug in midair, and then I can dance to that beat, not real, programmed steps but moves I make up as I go along. People think I’m good but I’m faking it like a lot of things in life. I have a large collection of music on all kinds of recording media, ranging from 78 rpms to vinyls to tapes to cds and maybe something I’ve missed. Play me some music and I’ll start moving.

Blogging. I started blogging five years ago with a blog I called SF Bay Area. At first, it was mostly about politics but over time I began to write about anything that came to mind. So far, I’ve posted close to 800 articles. Oddly, I’m still getting hits on several posts from 2007. I also have a blog on Open Salon to which I haven’t devoted as much attention to as I have to SF Bay Area. But it’s still active and occasionally I post something just to keep it alive. Blogging is another way to meet people with interests similar to mine and I’ve met some fantastic people, folks with eclectic interests and fabulous writing skills. I am not a writer by trade but I didn’t let that prevent me from creating a couple of blogs. I would encourage anyone to become a blogger who wants to express their interests in an informal community and at the same time reach a wide audience. Lots of people read blogs. One caution, however. Anonymous readers often called trolls may call you all sorts of names. Ignore them. “By your words shall ye be known.” Hmmm. That sounds like an interesting topic for a blog post.

Now it’s your turn. Okay, what are five little things that mean a lot to you? I would certainly be interested in knowing about your life’s little pleasures.  I’m sure others would be as well.  After all, Americans are born nosy.

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One of life’s little pleasures for me has always been reading Sunday newspapers. As far back as I can remember, I’d sit on the floor with the comics spread out around me while the big people swapped sections of news and features. Then later, we’d head for the car and a Sunday drive.

For some reason, I have the impression that Sunday morning reading is a dying American institution. The newsstands don’t carry as many different papers as they used to and of the one or two available, the supply may be limited to two or three copies.

This morning, I rode with my daughter on her usual trip to a nearby convenience store where she scoured the available copies of the Houston Chronicle and the Beaumont Enterprise for at least one of each with a full supply of inserts such as ads and coupons, which she dutifully paid for.

Later, as we were driving around looking for a place to have a leisurely breakfast, she told me an interesting tale. Many of the papers are complete with the news and feature sections but lack an essential element—ads and coupons.

Apparently, purposeful “customers” will arrive early and remove the inserts on their way out after buying a candy bar or something. Oddly, a paper would usually be cheaper than the item they buy. But I guess there’s no accounting for the logic or lack thereof in the mind of a zealous coupon collector.

Such is the status of a Sunday newspaper in Southeast Texas in the 21st Century.

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Our trip to Key West for a wedding and a family reunion began on a sour note but ended in great happiness at spending time with people we hadn’t seen in years.

Our flight out of Houston was delayed for two hours by an irreparable mechanical difficulty, which eventually necessitated a switch in airplanes.

We thus arrived in Fort Lauderdale at the peak of the evening traffic hour. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t matter, but on this trip our late arrival and gridlocked traffic meant that we had to drive the entire distance from Fort Lauderdale to Key West at night, 168 miles according to Susan, our GPS narrator.

The night was pitch dark and the only sign of life we saw on the entire trip was an occasional group lined up at a solitary unisex rest room in a convenience store. Beyond that, the edge of the earth may have loomed. As far as we could tell, the famous Seven Mile Bridge was just another couple of lanes of blacktop separated by an endless dark line. Key Largo was merely a Bogie and Bacall movie or a song by Bertie Higgins.

When we finally reached Key West around midnight, Susan ably directed us through the almost deserted streets of Key West’s Olde Town to our hotel on the other side of the island. I say “almost deserted” because we unexpectedly almost ran down a host of bicycle riders. They were all over the place, visible only by their small, pale headlights. My distinct impression as we followed Susan’s directions was of a rather tacky town in the tropics much like many I had seen in my travels.

Olde Town

After a refreshing night’s sleep, we learned that our initial impressions were completely wrong. Key West is a clean, neat town of mostly white homes and buildings with pastel trimmings. According to some sources, such as Wikipedia, most of the structures date from the early 1800s to around 1900. The homes certainly had a decidedly colonial Spanish and French look to them.

Olde Town, as its name suggests, is the oldest settled part of the island and as well as the center of tourist life. The town is split by Duval Street, the hub of night life. The street is lined with drinking establishments galore with cafes and restaurants thrown in for the hungry tourist. Seafood is the backbone of the restaurant business much like Tex-Mex is the backbone of the Texas dining scene.

Duval Street is packed with tourists day and night despite city ordinances that require all booze establishments to close at 11 p.m. and remain closed until 11 a.m. the following morning.

Olde Town is also the location of numerous hotels and motels, most of which offer coupons for thrilling activities such as a six-mile cruise on a glass bottomed boat to the world’s third largest reef (according to the tour’s narrator) where the tourists who aren’t seasick can spend some time taking pictures of reef fish through the green tinted glass at the bottom of each side of the catamaran. I snapped a bunch of pictures but haven’t’ seen a fish in any of them.

Truthfully, I thought the highlight of the reef trip was our location. We cruised slowly above the reef a mere 84 miles from Cuba, and I fully expected a Cuban gunboat to appear on the horizon at any minute.

New Town

In contrast to Olde Town, New Town is a modern area of malls and shopping centers, mansions along the Gulf drive, and assorted business like the ones you might find in any similarly-sized town in the heartland.

And, of course, fast food outlets. You name the outlet and it will probably be located along Key West’s main around-the-island highway. As usual, however, they’ll all be located on the other side of the road. New Town and the Heartland aren’t too different after all.

The People

Based on nothing more than my observations without reference to other sources, most of the people we came into contact with were from somewhere else. We would expect that of the tourists, but others, such as hotel front desk people, sales clerks, waiters and waitresses, tour guides, police officers, taxi drivers, and a plethora (love that word) of others were the people we might once have referred to as expatriates, much on the order of the flotsam and jetsam and Sadie Thompson’s of Somerset Maugham’s stories of the Pacific Islands.

Our hotel desk clerk was a guy from Napa who was in Key West because he had lost his job in California. The tour guide and driver of our train ride around town was an escapee from the cold in Minnesota. And several others were people with European accents, mostly German and Scandinavian with a smattering of French and Spanish.

The worker bees, such as maids, bus boys, and other manual laborers appeared to me to be Hispanic from Mexico and parts of South America, although they could have been born and raised on Key West. I wouldn’t have known the difference.

The island is home to a fair sized U.S. Naval air station with a thousand or so military people stationed on it. As far as looks go, I wouldn’t have known the difference between the service men and women and the rest of the island’s population.

The Weather

Mostly hot and humid with frequent rain-bearing thunderstorms. I found the rain refreshing and I had no problem walking around in it to cool down. When the rain stopped and the sun came out, there was also a moment’s pleasant feeling of renewed warmth.

If there was a downside to the heat and humidity, it may have been a local custom of cranking up air conditioners to da max. In that respect, Key West is similar to Texas where it’s a hundred degrees outside and 67 inside.

Activities

Think Hawaii. Everything you would expect in an ocean-oriented community: beaches, water tours, parasailing, snorkeling, historic military installations, dinner cruises, air tours, you name it. Because of our limited time on the island and a full-round of family activities, including a wedding, we were able to take advantage of a mere three or four before we had to leave for home.

Interesting Things I Learned

I’m sure you’ve heard of a conch shell. How would you pronounce the word “conch?” I’ve always said it like the ch at the beginning of choo choo.  But that isn’t the way it is in Key West. In the Keys, it’s pronounced like conk, as in “I’ll conk you on your noggin.” In other words, the word is spelled conch but pronounced conk.

There’s only one road in and one road out of Key West. That’s U.S. Highway 1, which runs from Key West to the U.S. border with Canada in Maine. The part of the highway running between Key West and Fort Lauderdale is about 165 miles. That’s the distance we drove on our first night in Florida.

The Return Trip

And it’s the distance we traveled on our return drive in the daylight. Quite a contrast. The weather was beautiful. We left our hotel early, missing most of the traffic along the way, and although the sky and the clouds were beautiful, the landscape was remarkably unremarkable. The road took us from one Key to the next with no grand views, just the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.

Tropical foliage lined both sides of the road, but for most of the distance, the strips of land on which the highway had been constructed wasn’t much wider than the road. A drunk driver or a sober driver whose tire blew out could easily have hit the water at a high rate of speed.

On Balance

Speaking only for myself, Key West is a nice place to visit once but it isn’t a spot I would choose for regular trips. Just my personal preference. Maybe a part of it is the difficulty in reaching the Keys. We could have flown directly in because Key West has a nice airport, but our travel costs would have been much higher. Who knows these things?

Besides, how many times can you ride a glass bottomed boat or take a miniature train ride through Olde Town over roads so bumpy I had the impression they may have been made of cobbles laid by French colonial convict labor.

Would I recommend a trip to Key West? Absolutely. You will probably love it. I am merely reporting my own impressions.

Sidelight

We were in the Fort Lauderdale airport when news of Casey Anthony’s acquittal was announced. Coincidentally, I was in the Jefferson County, Texas, airport when news of the acquittal of O.J. Simpson came over the cable waves or whatever.

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