Archive | May, 2021

Grandparents and Strawberries

21 May

He was a farmer, a fisherman, an ice harvester, and a gin runner… but by the time I met Chester, my great-grandfather, he was an old man who liked to make jokes, lived in the house he built, and loved his kids. And in his 80’s, he still grew a field of strawberries.

I was lucky in the fact that I remember six of my great-grandparents. Chester is probably the most colorful of them all. All eight were farmers; all of them moved away from their parents and bought their own farm. I didn’t know his wife, my great-grandma Helen, because she was 5 when she died of cancer. We were living in Kansas at the time, and I don’t remember going to her funeral, so if my mom went, I wouldn’t know.

That branch of the family is the most settled out of all the clans. The Crosses moved out to Illinois in the 1850’s and as their kids grew up, married, and farmed themselves, they only spread out in a eighty-mile radius. Not an easy visit, but completely do-able from the histories I’ve read at the time. When I went to visit Cordova, I found I accidently ran into my fourth cousin! I make a big deal about this because every other branch of my family moved to hell and gone away from their family. I don’t think this was on purpose–it’s just where the affordable land was.

My family didn’t tell stories of how Chester and Helen got together, but they did, and settled on land right on the Mississippi River. It wasn’t the best place to farm; it would flood every five to ten years. Even the nearby city dikes weren’t built until the “hundred year flood” back in 1965. (I once filled sandbags at that property.) They were poor… really dirt poor, and he had three daughters, one of which was my grandma. During the Great Depression, she told us kids about the time when they made biscuits, but cheese was expensive, so they would hide a bit of cheese in one of the biscuits and it was a game to see who got the cheesy biscuit. That was the treat.

When you’re a poor farmer, you do what you can to get by. During the winter, he would join the gangs of men who would chop ice blocks out of the Mississippi River. Before refrigeration, insulated ice boxes were what you used to keep your food in, and that required harvesting and storing ice in ice houses for the rest of the year. Going to the ice house during the summer was a big deal, especially in places like Texas, but Illinois can be just as humid.

He was also known to do a little petty theft here and there. He probably helped run booze during Prohibition across the river, but he didn’t talk much about it. Chester was always great with a joke and loved to laugh. His three daughters married well–my grandma was the oldest and became a farmer’s wife… until they couldn’t afford to farm any more, and became a factory secretary. My great-aunt Doris married the publisher of the local paper, so she did well, but made the grievous faux-pax of marrying a Dutchman. (gasp) They built a house right next to her dad and hated every minute of her country estate living right next to a moldy old shack. But she watched out for her dad in his old age, but tore that place down the week after he was buried. The third daughter, great-aunt Nancy, had the misfortune of outliving four husbands… she’s still alive and living in a nursing home in my hometown.

Chester didn’t have much, but he loved his family, and did everything he could with what he had… even if it wasn’t legal. But I remember him taking us out to the strawberry fields, looking at Helen’s collection of spoons and tchotchkes, and being fascinated by what an older man could see in his great-grandson. I hope you have some good memories of your great-grandparents; share them in the comments below! Then check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free.

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose

20 May

Soundbites are wonderful slogans. “No person is illegal.” “It’s a life, not a choice.” “Black lives matter.” “Sola Scriptura, Sola Fidei, Sola Deo Gratia.” (That’s a much older slogan.) The problems come when you take a slogan and try to make that a policy.

I’ve been reading Apostles of Reason: Crisis of Authority in American Evangelism by Molly Worthen, which sounds like a snooze fest, but is actually one of the most interesting, most compelling modern histories I’ve read. She’s writing the history of the evangelical movement in America, starting in the 1920’s (although as she says, you could start it anywhere in American history), and telling how a few ministers and theologians started off with an idea of church reform, which became church growth, which became a reaction to counter-culture, leading to the Moral Majority in the 1980’s.

The main issue that evangelicals have to wrestle with is the details. Sure, it’s easy to say the Three Solas of the Reformation: “Sola Scriptura, Sola Fidei, Sola Deo Gratia.” (By scripture alone, by faith alone, and by the grace of God alone.) But how does that translate into what you believe? We believe in scripture alone. Okay, does that mean the Word of God is inerrant and perfect? But then how to explain all the “copying errors” in the Bible that actually change the meaning of sentences? How do you reconcile parts of the Bible that make no sense–my favorite being Exodus 4:24-26, God coming to kill Moses right after the Burning Bush incident.

The more I thought about it, the more this applies to other slogans as well. Slogans are great–they unify us in a common cause, they’re easier to shout at rallies, they get people to the polls. However, because your supporters come to together, when you get to actually changing policy, many of your supporters will feel betrayed because they never thought about “what happens next?”

Okay, let’s take “defund the police.” To some people that means, the police are the reason there’s so much violence, let’s get rid of it. To other people that means, we force a reform of the police, break up the union, you’re likely to get better cops. To some others, it might mean, the police have too much money, so they buy military equipment to abuse our citizens. If they had less money, they’d be less militarized. So let’s say you go with option three: you’ve alienated the “no cops” crowd, disappointed the reformers, and may not get what you expect with option three. The police department may react by hiring fewer officers and keeping all that equipment.

If you’re goal is simple and direct, you’re less likely to fracture once you hit your goal, but then how do you keep your organization together? What comes next? In some cases, like Society for the Preservation of the Real Thing and Old Cola Drinkers of America, once you get original Coca-Cola back (yes, Coke changed it’s formula and a massive upswell of support brought back the original formula 71 days later), they simply disband. If you’re about Gay Marriage, when you get gay marriage, you then simply touch on other issues like, custody rights, hospital visitation rights, social security benefits… et al.

So for some, the fight never ends. You may think this is a good thing, you might support it but no longer actively, or you might think this is a betrayal of the cause. Take smoking. We went from 45 percent of Americans being regular smokers in 1965 to 15. That should be cause to celebrate, right? But no, obviously we need to work on the remaining 15. Now in a time where smoking is banned in public in almost every state in America, the anti-smoking movement still pushes against cigarettes and vaping. (But not cigars or pipes… or marijuana…. I wonder why?) The American Cancer Society is forced to bring up second-hand (and sometimes third-hand) smoke to press their claims. You get more granular and you start losing focus.

So here’s where I could get into activists changing the message to get more people on their side, but I fear I’m crossing into dangerous territory, so I’ll leave it there. But what do you think? Is it harder to pursue the fight when you actually have to implement your rules? Is the cause more valuable when you’ve achieved your initial goals? Let me know in the comments below! Then if you like reading my writing, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

When Do I Get to Be the Mom?

19 May

In the flight to the suburbs in the 50’s, Americans didn’t just leave the city behind, they left their parents behind as well. Grandparents had frequently lived with their grandchildren throughout American history… until we could afford not to.

I was reading a article about how Sun City, Arizona was created as one of the first retirement communities. (I pick up the weirdest articles–which if you read this blog, you already knew.) Now older people had been travelling to Arizona for sometime, but usually because they had tuberculosis, and the dry environment helped them live longer. My own great-aunt Josephine moved out to Tucson for her husband’s TB.

However, with wealth came separation. The affordable car allowed people to live further away from their workplace, so instead of living in a cramped row house or apartment in the city, why not move out to the suburbs? Land was cheap, construction was available, and so they moved. However, they still had the place in the city, and often parents didn’t want to move, so… leave them there. Often there was one of many adult children who took care of them. Suddenly there was a mind shift. Americans now didn’t live with with their parents, making it the exception, not the rule.

Once I watched the movie Avalon (1990), and although it’s something I’ve never watched again, it’s a really cool film about three generations of the same family coming to, then adapting to living in America. However, in the story, the second generation takes their parents with them to the suburbs. Although this cuts them from their extended family, the daughter-in-law gets annoyed watching her mother-in-law undercut her authority with her own daughter. So the daughter-in-law goes to her husband and asks, “When do I get to be the Mom?” The next scene, the parents are moved out to a retirement home.

So… unwanted by their families, we developed a culture of nursing homes and retirement communities. My own grandfather (dad’s dad) made his entire career building nursing homes across the Midwest… and then lived his retirement in his own home and died there. Of course, my family is weird that way. My mom’s parents lived on their own, sunbirded down to Texas during the winter, until they couldn’t any more. When my grandpa died, then grandma injured herself and couldn’t stay alone. She spent the last ten years of her life in a nursing home, barely present.

We tried to do the right thing with my wife’s parents–they had four kids, so the single one lived with them and helped take care of them. But sooner or later, the work of caring for them became more than one person could do simply by living there… it became their full-time commitment. Then two kids’ commitment. Then finally, it was too much for all of them. My in-laws were moved to a nursing home; my father-in-law died within six months. My mother-in-law was moved to Texas to be near two of her daughters… but still in a nursing home.

With extended lifespans, it seems almost inevitable that we will grow more isolated as we get older. There’s a price to be paid for living longer… and man, is that a depressing thought to end this post on. However, there is a whole culture and a whole industry built around the elderly. I’ve skirted around it going to veteran’s bars where I’m the youngest guy in there at 45. The beast adapts. But what’s your story? Let me know in the comments below! Then if you still have time on this earth, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 cuts into your retirement fund, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. I’d appreciate it.

Survey Says?

18 May

So recently, I’ve fallen into the habit of taking surveys for money, and it’s an interesting universe. What marketers and academics are interested in hearing about and what they’re willing to pay for that information becomes research in and of itself.

Where this all started was with my wife–since she’s doing research for a dissertation–she needed to reach a wider audience so that she could get better results for her survey. Someone introduced her to a website called Prolific and she got double number of results that she had previously. So… success! However, it required a lot of money that she really didn’t have as a graduate student, but thankfully, someone had some extra money in their fund that they transferred to her use.

I thought–wow! Getting paid to do academic surveys? That sounds pretty cool. So they wanted to know a lot of information about yourself, which is understandable, so that you can weed out surveys that don’t apply to you. However, the information became more and more detailed. Finally, they wanted my personal information, including a screenshot of my ID, and that’s where I started to get worried. I made sure to check the website out, made sure it was legitimate, and then submitted the information. I got an email saying I was rejected.

What?! You make me go through actually showing you my ID to prove I’m a real person to tell me that you’re not Prolific material. Oh, hell no! So I write them back demanding an explanation. They reply saying “they don’t monitor this email account and could you reply through their service desk?” It took me a while to do that and… va-voom! Suddenly I get access.

What was the difference? My guess is that as long as my wife’s survey was live, they couldn’t use my input. Now that it’s closed, it’s open season for me. I’ve filled out three and got a couple dollars credit I can convert over to hard cash soon.

While I was waiting, there’s plenty of other apps which provide the same opportunities for regular marketing issues. These are not as exciting–and not as profitable–but they require very little to confirm who you are. I fell into Survey Junkie and rather enjoy it. They do a whole thing involving points that convert directly into USD pennies for… reasons. I guess that allows them to collect information for internal surveys to sell your information to get more marketers.

It reminds me of a lecture one of the lawyers I was working with explained. People get upset when they sell your data; but if you pay them for your data, they’re willing to give it for free. Modern people know that so much of your data is being stolen from you all the time, but hey, I get a free app out of it, so why not? However, there’s a limit to how much data theft we’re willing to take… but if you pay them for their data, suddenly all objection vanishes. That’s going to be the future of data mining.

Of course, what the heck would I know? I just make eLearning modules. Maybe you have a better insight than I do. If so, let me know in the comments below! And while you’re at my site, why not pick up one of my books? However, if you need to take a few more surveys to pay for it, download one of my stories for free!

Who Drinks This Stuff?

17 May

I must go to the wrong bars–or the right ones–because I never see anyone order a complicated drink. Usually it’s beer or a simple cocktail (like myself), but a Long Island Iced Tea, which takes several shots… nah. I think your drink says a lot about what your priorities are.

As an unreformed drinker, I will tell you that everyone has a main drink. They might drink wine, or beer, or hard liquor from time to time, but you have a primary drink that go to when you’re not trying to impress anyone or when you’re by yourself. Now that might not be consistent. Currently, mine is the scotch and soda, but that changes. Occasionally I mix it up with a bourbon and Coke or a gin and tonic (as we approach the summer months), but it generally it’s a simple cocktail.

Now… would I mind a Manhattan or a Gin Martini? Absolutely! But I don’t order those at a bar for one simple reason; the bartender gets it wrong. Even a gin and tonic, which is just three items (gin, tonic, lime wedge), frequently doesn’t come with a lime which makes it… less appealing. If I have to explain the drink, I feel like a douchebag, and if I don’t get what I wanted, I’ve just wasted my money. So I keep the drink simple so someone can’t screw it up.

Often I see many primary drinks like that. If it gets more complicated than a beer, than it’s a screwdriver (orange juice and vodka), or just ordering a shot of fireball with your beer. It also takes longer, so your drink priority gets moved down considerably on a busy night. But I try to avoid those as well.

But that’s my priority; getting the drink to my lips faster. Since so many cocktails are sweet, adding in cordials and fruit juices, the point of them is to mellow the bitterness of the alcohol being served. I guess if you’re younger and you’re trying to get used to the flavor of the booze (but like the effect it has on you), then that’s where a lot of those fruity drinks come into play. “Doing shots” seems to be a much more direct option; how drunk can I get in the shortest amount of time. Again, never quite understood that, since you’re spending a lot of money for a short amount of enjoyment. But maybe that’s why so many shots can be just as complicated as a cocktail. “Irish Car Bomb” comes instantly to mind; Irish Cream, cinnamon liquor, and… something. But if you just down them, what’s the point? Again, they’re just trying to get as drunk as possible so they can party. I’m there to sit a while and have a good time.

So since I go to “old guy bars,” I never see this stuff. I didn’t even get into alcohol until I was 25, so I missed the entire college bar scene. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it even if I had–old guy bars are quiet, you can have conversations with interesting people, and you can relax. Most people come to bars for “an event,” so maybe those places have a greater concentration of fruity concoctions. But maybe you guys would know better–let me know your impressions in the comments below! Then make your favorite drink and read one of my books. However, if $1.99 is cutting into your beer money, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. 

Thematically Unfortunate

16 May

So you get to a point in your story where you run out of outline… and you’re still only at 40k words. I don’t want to stay in Novella, that great netherland of my writing, but I’m not sure how to expand it. Well, it turned out I just needed another storyline!

The story I’m working on–let’s call it “historical technothriller”–is mostly a spy novel. Which means that I’m following my two heroes, the bad guy, and the guys following the bad guy. But that left me in a terrible pickle; because that’s a lot of stories to balance out, but no where to expand. Then my writing partner came up with the solution; the political angle!

There is a major problem with adding the politics to a technothriller, and it’s a problem that any author in the genre faces. You can’t use real world people in those positions because… well, they can sue. So you can either use lesser politicians (who knows who the Deputy Director of Intelligence is at the CIA?) or you can create fictional people. The second you do that, though, you’re telling your audience that you’re in an alternate universe… and that might jar them out of the story.

So I want to avoid that. Thankfully, my writing partner also came up with more outline that allows me to continue the story without adding in yet another storyline. We both decided to save that for the 2nd Draft. But this story is really testing my ability… but thankfully I’ve got help.

Have you ever run into this situaiton before? Let me know in the comments below! If you want to see what some of my finished books look like, check them out! But if you’re not ready to commit that much, download one of my stories for free!

Harpo’s Harp(s)

15 May

File this under “things you never think about”: what ever happened to Harpo Marx’s harp? His nickname came from the harp he played, (actual name Adolph, changed to Alfred) apparently during a card game. But what happened to the harp?

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not very conversant in the Marx Brothers–wrong generation, I’ll have to say– so it’s something that never occurred to me. You’d think that a major comedy figure’s instrument would be in some museum somewhere. But no, it gets weirder. According to Wikipedia, he willed his harps to the State of Israel, where they are still used in an orchestra.

But that wasn’t good enough an answer for me. Which orchestra? Is it still there? Thankfully, someone put a link to justify this claim, so I followed that to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews website (which my grandparents-in-law were members of, being both… well, Christian and Jewish). They have a link to another blog post that says that the instrument is still at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

So… mystery solved, right? No. The story gets more interesting. You look through the pictures and the saga of finding the harp at JAMD, and then you get to the comments. Since the harp is not a… popular instrument, those that play it are passionate about their harps. So let a harpist from Yosemite, California tell the next part of the tale:

“Harpo’s TWO harps were donated to the state of Israel, and not by Harpo, who didn’t “will” his harps to anyone. His widow Susan was VERY explicit in this and told me first-hand; in her own words, “no, he didn’t will anything to anything.” In a nutshell, after Harpo’s death, Susan was invited to judge the first International Harp Festival in Israel. She – as she told me: knew nothing about harpistry and asked if their son Bill (who’s a pretty brilliant musician and had worked extensively with his dad) could come along and judge in her place. And then SHE decided to donate those TWO harps of Harpo’s to the state of Israel, with the proviso that they NOT be kept in glass cases, but that they be used by students; she told me she wanted one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. But when they were being unloaded from the plane in Israel, Susan was presented with a bill for 100% duty – which she told me, was a total of $12,000 (and this was in 1965.) She was furious and said, “Forget it! I’ll send them home!” And she then told me it took (so she claimed) intervention from the highest levels of government to arrange for those two harps to be “allowed” in as nothing had ever been admitted to Israel duty-free. But that’s the story, straight from Harpo’s wife, as told to me. Two harps, not one!”

So where’s the second harp? The comments continue to be revealing. Apparently it was donated to the Tel Aviv Music Academy, which today is the Buchman Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University. Cool. Mystery solved. But then if you’re a Marx Brothers fan, you know there was a third harp that was used in an episode of I Love Lucy. Apparently this harp has a lot of provenance, It was owned by Harpo and he used it playing with Milton Berle, on a Pepsi commercial, and played with Louis Armstrong. He sold it in 1962, three years before he died.

So instead of a simple answer, I found a whole epic tale about different harps and a chain of events throughout history. It’s amazing what you find down the rabbit hole. Have you ever run into this before? Let me know in the comments below! While you’re there, go ahead and pick up one of my books! However, if you’re not ready to commit to my epic tales, go ahead and download one of my stories. You’ll be glad you did.

Perception vs. Reality

12 May

One of the great dangers is letting our thoughts become our reality. So at my new job, I get a very nice benefit; I get a bus/rail pass. Considering my job is downtown, it makes far more sense to use it, but I was surprised on how many co-workers would not.

The reason they don’t has nothing to do with timing or location… it’s “the light rail is smelly.” They were afraid of dealing with urine-stained seats and homeless people riding the rails. The truth is… there’s none of that. I rode it this morning and everything was spotless, no smelling people, just people on their way to work. But people were convinced that it was that they didn’t want to ride it.

It just struck me as a very unusual complaint, probably by people who hadn’t taken the light rail in years. Buses… okay, you may have a point, but generally the buses in my neighborhood are pretty clean. I was really just taken aback by the weirdness of that argument. There are plenty of reasons that people might not take the bug. I have to drop off my kids. What if there’s an emergency? I need to get home quickly.

What’s prevented me in the past is the inconvenience angle. When I lived in outer Cincinnati, I took the express bus to work, only a fifteen minute walk to the stop, shot me downtown, and then there was a shuttle to take me to work. Cheaper, easier, and much less stressful. Then we moved from beyond the beltway to a much closer burb. I rode my bike to the bus stop, shot on close to my job on the local bus, and then waited for the bus at the end of the day to take me back. And waited. And waited. And when it showed up, there were three in a row, because all the refugees from downtown slowed down the bus.

This honked me off so much, that I just rode home one day… all 11 1/2 miles of it. I did it, felt exhausted, but made it home in one piece. After that, I did it on purpose. Then eventually, I took the bike down to work as well as back up and only rode the bus again when I broke my hand. Because it was simply faster.

So I’ll admit, I’m taking advantage of the light rail because it’s gonna only a little more time and save me a whole ton of money. Plus I love trains. But thinking that it’s “smelly” when it’s not? I think there’s an impression of the last time you rode… or the impression that you think you remember from one incident long ago… and that colors your actions. It’s a strange thought, but so often gets applied to many subjects. The same way that the first thing you heard about a subject becomes the absolute truth, despite any facts to the contrary.

Does this happen to you? Let me know in the comments below! Then once you’ve done that, why not pick up one of my books? But if you’re not convinced of my writing to spend $1.99, download one of my stories for free!

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