The Right To Bake Cookies Is The Right To Be Free

From The Arizona Republic newspaper, November 27th, "Bake Sales, Beware":
For more than two decades, Earlene McDonald and her neighborhood friends have baked cookies to raise dough for their central Phoenix neighborhood.

They cooked thousands of rum balls, rows of gingerbread and loads of other Christmas treats to sell to the crowds at the annual holiday home tour in the F.Q. Story Historic District.

And, until this year, they did it all in the comfortable, familiar settings of their own kitchens.

The tradition changed after a visit last year by a Maricopa County health inspector who said she would snatch up the cookies because they weren't prepared in a kitchen approved by the county.

So, instead of mixing and measuring in their own homes, they gathered one night this week to bake away inside the gigantic kitchen of a professional catering company.

"Last year, (an inspector) was going to have us throw them away, and I about had a heart attack," said McDonald, 68, who is in charge of the neighborhood cookie operation. "This is a tradition. All our neighbors love it."

At the peak of holiday cooking season, as Valley residents enjoy tamales, cookies, breads and cakes, county Department of Environmental Services officials want to raise public awareness about bake-sale guidelines.

Not a new requirement
The guidelines have been on the books for decades and are meant to prevent contamination and food-borne illnesses such as hepatitis.

The rules call for all food that is sold or given away [emphasis added] to be prepared and packaged in a central location, such as restaurants or school cafeterias, that are regulated and inspected by county health inspectors. More neighborhood groups, such as the residents of F.Q. Story, are borrowing or renting kitchens to comply with the rules.

But for years, many neighborhood, school and civic groups have flown under the health-code radar, officials said, partly because they're unaware of the rules.

Also, it's tough for health inspectors to keep track of the many fund-raisers that pop up in neighborhoods throughout the year.

School requirements
Some Valley school districts have written formal policies that require parents to bring in labeled store-bought cupcakes, cookies and other goodies, though parents often cheat and bring in homemade treats packaged in bakery boxes.

No reports of illnesses from bake sales have been filed with environmental services [emphasis added], said David Ludwig, division manager for the Environmental Health Division.

Officials could not provide figures on how many citations they have issued to neighborhood groups for breaking the guidelines, he said, because they don't track citations by types of events.

Typically, health inspectors would issue a warning before they wrote a citation, Ludwig said. Fines can amount to hundreds of dollars.

Cookies are generally low-risk because bacteria are not likely to multiply as quickly as they do with "potentially hazardous foods" such as tamales, eclairs, cream puffs and pies. Still, it's a concern in this age of contamination.

"Mom might bake a great batch of cookies, but if she has an egg-based cookie and doesn't cook it to the proper temperature, you could get salmonella," Ludwig said.

"If you were out there selling Rice Krispy treats and they were not wrapped, we'd ask you to cease and desist."


Shorter Health Department: "You people are pigs! Your kitchens are cesspools! You're trying to poison your friends and neighbors!"

Criminy. Strictly interpreted, the Health Department's regulations would mean that potlucks, bake sales, church socials, possibly even taking a dish to a family Thanksgiving, are all illegal.

The underlying default assumption behind the HD's actions is that home kitchens are inherently unhealthy.

I kinda resent that. Considering that e. coli infections from restaurants are reported on a semi-regular basis, eating professionally prepared foods hardly seems risk-free. (The worst -- actually, only -- case of food poisoning I had came from a dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles; by the time I got home to Phoenix the next day, I was doing the double-ended chunder and came close to ending up in the hospital.)

There really ought to be a recognition that there's an assumption of risk in every daily activity. But there's reasonable risks and unreasonable risks. The Health Department is acting as if eating home-cooked products was an unreasonable risk.

I don't think so. I think it's safe to assume that when I cook something for someone, anyone, I'm not trying to poison them. I think it's safe to assume that most people old enough to cook without supervision know that sufficient heat + food = dead germs. I think it's safe to assume that when I nibble at the Christmas potluck at work next week, I'll still be alive Christmas morning.

This calls for a bumper sticker:

[photos from stock.xchng. Cookie-stack by singhajay (Ajay Singh). Oven mitt by mzacha (Michael Zacharzewski).]


The Perfect Food

On last week's episode of THE BIGGEST LOSER (a reality show with a weight-loss theme), one of the contestants won a 24-hour trip home to see family and friends. While there, she and several friends went out to a pizza place...

...where she ordered a small pizza with JUST marinara sauce on it.

"Accckkk!!" I cried at the tv screen. "Secular blasphemy! Secular blasphemy!"

I'm sorry, but... that's not pizza! That's bread with tomato sauce.

Real pizza is the perfect food. You got your carbs, you got your veggies, you got your meat (optional), you got your dairy, and you got some fats and oils. All the major food groups in one place. Then you bake it all in a hot oven until you get that great caramelization and browning on the dough and cheese. O-o-o-h-h-h, yeah, baby.

What's not to love?

The problem with a good pizza, like potato chips, is that it's hard to stop at just one slice. That's where you get into the excess calories and fats.

Pizza without cheese is just not pizza. If the Biggest Loser contestant had had even a light sprinkle -- a few spoonfuls -- of Mozzarella or Parmesan on her "pizza", I wouldn't have reacted so strongly.

In fact, if it weren't for pizza... the future would never happen.

[warning: Trek-geekery ahead]

In the film Star Trek: First Contact, Earth's first contact by aliens occurs after Zephram Cochrane's flight in the Phoenix, and the first human use of warp drive technology. Supposedly, inventing a warp drive proves your planet is mature enough to be contacted by other races

Uh huh. Yeah, right.

Nope. Inventing a warp drive only gets you a first look. No sane alien race is going to invite you into their Federation just on that one data point. When the Vulcans landed and introduced themselves at the film's end. Of course they're going to take a good look around, and see what kind of history, psychology, track record these "humans" have before things go any further. For a first contact, they're only going to have a meet-and-greet over coffee. If things go well, maybe it'll move on to dinner, and a movie, at a later date

When those Vulcans landed, they discovered a world that had been decimated by war. And when they learned about human history, they would have learned that humans had been killing each other in wars all through their recorded history.

Not very encouraging. If not for a fortunate coincidence, the Vulcans would probably have left a fake phone number, got back on their ship, and flown away

The fortunate coincidence was that they landed in the midst of a party celebrating the warp drive's success. A party where there was music, beer, and...

...oh come on, what do you think would be served at a party like that?...


So the visiting Vulcans would certainly have asked about the strange food they were being offered. And they would have been told it was called "pizza".

And they would have been told that it started off with a base of bread dough. That could be done thin-crust, or thick-crust, or hand-tossed. That it could be white, or sourdough, or whole-wheat. It could even be a pre-cooked crust, like lavosh, or Boboli,

And then they'd have learned that the next step was a sauce, usually but not always tomato-based, seasoned with a wide, wide range of spices. Or you could make it with an Alfredo sauce, or pesto, or just olive oil and garlic.

And then the meats, if you wanted. Sausage, ham, bacon, beef, chicken, rattlesnake, anchovies, whatever you felt like.

And the extra veggies. Onions, olives, peppers, mushrooms, etc., etc., etcetera.

And the cheeses. Mozzarella, Parmesan, Romano, goat cheese, Feta, Gorgonzola, and even more etcetera.

All these choices. All these variations.

By which point, the Vulcans would have been standing there, jaws dropped and eyes wide. And they would have turned to one another, and said something like:

"These people... these humans... they have created something that is a physical manifestation of the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC: 'Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination'. Clearly, they are fit to join with other races."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the true story of how humans went into far space.

(You can trust me; I wouldn't make up something like that. If you don't believe me, do a search on "pizza ovens"; one of the major brands of pizza ovens is... yes, really... "Vulcan"!)

(Incidentally, after that first contact, the Vulcans of course took pizza back with them into space, and spread the concept to other planets. The results were not always pretty. The Klingons' own unfortunate variation on the pizza concept gave rise to the Klingon expression "Some days you eat the pizza, and some days the pizza eats you.")


Run, Run, Here Comes The Geezer!

I had the last of my lower teeth yanked out a few weeks ago.


Bad teeth tend to run in my family. Crooked, discolored, and very, very prone to cavities, regardless of how often you brushed. (There was a series of old toothpaste commercials who featured various kids coming home from a dental appointment and proudly announcing "Look, Mom, no cavities!" Those commercials probably made my parents want to throw a brick at the tv; it was a great! day at the dentist's when one of us boys would only have one or two cavities to be treated.)

So, about five years ago I realized that dental expenses to try and keep my teeth together were running between $150 and $200 a month. Our dentist, Dr. Lundgren, had been jigsawing repeated fillings around one another for about twenty years to try and keep enough teeth together to function. As I got older, this began to garner diminishing returns, and I decided to get an upper denture. (The upper teeth were the ones falling apart fastest and most expensively; the lower ones were still pretty functional.)

I was pretty satisfied with the upper plate. Yep, took some getting used to, to have a big chunk of plastic & ceramic in my mouth for hours every day. Yep, didn't have the same chewing pressure available for eating. But it was functional enough.

Time passes. More of the lower teeth lose fillings or break apart. Some get extracted. Eventually, I'm down to the last half-dozen front teeth and one molar.

A few months ago, that last lower molar starts to *twinge* whenever I put pressure on it, and I realize it's time to start thinking about a lower denture.

(It would have been nice if it had occurred in some other year than one in which someone apparently signed me up for the Unexpected Expense of the Month Club. I don't like the selections, and the reply cards don't have a "DON'T SEND" option.)

So, hey, I see the prosthodontist who'll make the new denture, and the oral surgeon who'll do the extractions, arrange a couple days off work (getting a bunch of teeth extracted at one time lays you pretty low for a couple of days), and get it all done.


Gosh, a normal-looking mouth, after all these years. Who'da thunk?

Still getting used to the new denture. Still a little tender where the real teeth used to be. Still getting used to eating (mostly softer foods yet) with the denture, and talking around it. (I've always tended towards speaking High Mumble -- Hilde's gotten pretty good at translating over the years -- but the current mode might be described as "Mumble-&-Mush", which sounds like a food item you might find served in a British pub.)

Having both plates in tends to change the shape of my face somewhat, pushing the lower half outwards. I've noticed that with lips closed, I now look rather stern, like some Puritan elder out of uniform. Hilde's told me that when I have my mouth open slightly, it's mostly the lower denture that's visible, and it looks a lot like a snarl. And when I raise my upper lip to compensate for that, it makes my cheekbones pop and my eyes widen, which altogether looks... umm, well... demented.

Hmmm. Sullen, irritated, and crazed. Yeh, that's pretty much me in a nutshell.


Strange Visitor From A Reptilian Planet

We had an overnight visitor last week, a fairly large desert tortoise.

This came about when the household's female members (Hilde, Kay, Tabbi and Holly) went off to a friend's place for the evening.

When they came back out to go home, this guy had wedged himself in the space between a tire tread and the carport.

Their friend recognized him as coming from the crack house several houses down the street, the crack house where the residents had been raided and arrested recently, and were still in jail awaiting trial. A neighbor kid had taken the tortoise in, but the tortoise kept escaping from the kid's back yard.

So it was decided the tortoise needed a better home. Not us; between Mim and the cats, ours isn't the best choice for a tortoise. (Also, they're a protected species, and this guy was probably being kept without a permit by the people in the crack house.) But we could shelter it for the night in the backyard's sunken garden (a filled-in swimming pool), which has a low fence to keep the dog out, until we could find an appropriate rescue organization to take it in.

Come morning, I went out to take a better look at the tortoise.

Y'know what? Tortoises are cool. Crack House Charlie (my nickname for the tortoise) ambled back and forth across the garden, checking out the new territory. I fed him some of the cauliflower trimmings we'd set out for him; he seemed to like being hand-fed.

A tortoise is a very calming thing to have around; they're a walking embodiment of "phlegmatic". They have the face of a wise old Zen master.

How could you possibly not love a face like that?

Kay went online Sunday morning and eventually contacted the Phoenix Herpetological Society; one of their members who had a permit to foster desert tortoises came over in the afternoon to pick Crack House Charlie up.

It turned out Crack House Charlie was actually Crack House Charlotte. My plans for a new career as a tortoise sexer after retirement now lay in ruins.

Tales From Kafka Station

At a recent station meeting (a weekly meeting where management gathers employees and reads them the latest talking points), the talking point for the week was: In the wake of the latest postage increase, and the changes in how they're calculated, a lot of letters and parcels are being sent out short-postaged. And we carriers are supposed to catch these letters and packages, and recover the postage.

Some smartass carrier points out that: 1) We don't have postage scales in our trucks. 2) None of the carriers have yet been given any guides, handouts, or training on the new postage rates, four months after they've gone into effect. 3) In fact, the carriers were never even told a new postage increase was in the pipeline, and the smartass carrier had actually first heard of it from one of his customers who'd read of it in the newspaper. And 4) smartass carrier points out that it wouldn't really have taken rocket science to send out informational postcards to customers listing the basic new rates, with phone numbers and websites to contact for further information. And, hey, informing carriers about the new rates in advance might have been a good idea, too.

"*harumph, harumph*" management replies. "We gave the clerks an entire week of training on the new rates."

"Are you saying that it takes an entire week of instruction to understand the new postage rates," smartass carrier responds. "but that members of the public, and carriers, are supposed to understand and use them with no training at all?"

Management ends meeting.

I should really stop speaking up at those meetings.

- - - - -

About a week later, Friday morning, I get called into the supervisor's office. I ask if I need to have a union steward in the meeting with me, and I'm told "Yes."

This means that management is unhappy with me for some reason.

So the union steward, Jim, and I go in to the supervisor's office. And the reason management is unhappy with me is...


...the previous day, Thursday, my SDO (Scheduled Day Off)...

...I had spent the entire morning in a four-hour medical test.

Let me say that again:

Management was unhappy with me because, on my day off, I had scheduled a medical exam.

Why did this make management unhappy?

Because, under the union contract, when employees are required to work on their SDOs, the Postal Service in turn is required to give them a full eight-hour day.

Wednesday afternoon, about 2:00, Supervisor #1 had called my cell phone while I was in the middle of delivering my route and informed me that I had to work the next day. I advised her of the medical test I had scheduled for the next morning. She told me to report to work after the test. I informed her the test wouldn't be completed until, at the earliest, noon. She told me to come in to work anyway.

I didn't see how this plan was going to work out, since even if I managed to get to the station by noon, the mandatory eight-hour requirement meant I would work until at least 8:30 that night (eight hours work, plus a half-hour lunch break) and the building and the gates are locked up at seven PM.

When I finished my route and got back to the station, Supervisor #1 had already gone home, leaving Supervisor #2 in charge. I told S-2 about the conversation with S-1; he agreed with me that there was no way for me to work an eight-hour day the next day, and instructed me to not come in.

Fine and dandy, except that now I had contradictory orders from two supervisors.

So, Thursday morning, I go in to the testing lab to have my test. After the first couple of blood draws, I call the station and speak to Supervisor #1 again. I tell her, again, that I won't be free until after noon (the test started about half an hour late), and probably couldn't get to the station to start work until about 1:00. This time she told me (slightly grumpily) not to report to work that day.

Fine by me. I use the rest of that day to get a few things done around the house, and to run a few errands.

Back to Friday, and the supervisor's office. (The meeting is with yet another supervisor, Supervisor #3.)

S-3 is the supervisor who tells me management is upset that I went to the doctor's on my day off. She also tells me that my telling S-1 about Thursday's test appointment on Wednesday afternoon wasn't enough advance notice for management to cope with.

So, apparently, telling them about prior commitments as soon as they tell me I have to come in on my SDO isn't soon enough.

(Actually, getting the call from S-1 in mid-afternoon was more notice than I frequently get. A lot of the times I've been told to come in for the next day's SDO, it's only after I get back from the street, and sometimes when I'm actually standing at the time clock to punch out and go home. So it's okay for them to tell employees at the last minute, but employees are supposed to tell them about prior commitments within some unstated "sufficient" time.)

But wait, there's more! S-3 goes on to tell me that since they wanted me to work on Thursday, my not coming in that morning was considered "an unscheduled absence", with a possibility of disciplinary action.

Excuse me? What part of "Scheduled Day Off" is being ignored here?

Apparently, I'm only supposed to go see my doctor on Sundays.

"Do you have anything to say in response?" S-3 asks.

By this point, I'm trying not to laugh out loud. This is crazy talk from crazy people. "Oh, no, no," I respond. "I can honestly say that at this point I am speechless."

(Well, I do say a bit more. Like that this whole conversation has been nonsensical, and that S-3 knows it's nonsense, and that her being willing to sit there and embarass herself by spouting the nonsense she's been told to spout makes her the real problem, not me. I also tell her it's her job to deal with it when employees aren't available to come to work, not mine. I also tell her that I'm not going to postpone or cancel my medical appointments to make her job easier.)

The union steward has been injecting his own comments throughout the meeting. (Jim is a New Yorker who transferred from the Bronx a few years ago, and brings a NYC attitude to his work for the union; this is good.)

Meeting over, I go back to work. Jim stays in the office, since another carrier, Mike, has been called into the office next because he had a medical appointment on his day off.

(Hmm, come to think of it, Mike is another smartass who tends to speak up at the weekly meetings. And so is Judy, who had her own meeting for the same reason a few weeks before. Is there a pattern here?)

Any sane, rational person with an ounce of intelligence would know that when an employee uses his day off to make mundane appointments, rather than taking work time off, the only thing management should say to that person is "Thank you."

So, what's really going on here?

Part of it may be that management here is specifically trying to intimidate employees who speak out at meetings.

But I think the major part of it may be that this is part of a tendency among Big Business (not just the Postal Service) that's been growing for years, to deliver -- subtly or blatantly -- a message to employees that "Your Life Belongs To US!"

Forced overtime. Cancelled days off. Restrictions on use of leave time. And all growing more and more frequent, more and more the "standard" model of a working environment, more and more what American workers expect to find in the workplace, more and more what's considered normal.

What I was told in that office was just a step away from actually being forbidden to see a doctor on my day off, because in the eyes of management, every day of an employee's life belongs to them.

That's not an employee/management situation.

The name for that is slavery.

(Sounding just a little disgruntled, am I? Not the first time. There have been at least a half-dozen occasions over the years when I've felt like walking away from the Postal Service, and it's only been the medical insurance that's kept me on the job.) (Well, that, and the fact that I really do enjoy serving the public. The job is fine, probably one of the best I could find for my temperment, but wow, management sure does suck.)


Eyes Wide Sleepy

(photo from stock.xchang)

Because my readers, umm, reader (thanks, Tal!) demand it:

Hoo, it's been an interesting last few months.

Sidebar 1: One of the cliches of fanzines -- the old ink-on-paper productions where I got my start as a informal-essayist/raconteur/critic-at-large/public-jerk/etcetera -- and blogging is "The Pain Story", the great and not-so-great tellings of injury, sickness and suffering in the writer's life.

"Pain Stories" tend to get old pretty quickly, especially when they start to be the writer's most frequent subject. And I've already had a pretty major Pain Story here recently, writing about my night in the ER and the hip bursitis that followed.

So I don't want to over-do it on the medical-issues stuff. But there have been some major developments on that front for me lately, and a lot of thinking about them, that may lead to some major lifestyle changes. So this is Important Stuff, to me if not necessarily to my occasional commenters and vast hordes of lurkers. (There... there are vast hordes of lurkers out there, right? Raise your right hand if you're lurking. No, the other right.)

So bear with me a bit on this. Thanks.

Over the last year, I've been having increasing problems staying awake during the day. Particularly during the workday. Particularly while I'm out on the street delivering mail. Particularly...

...ohhhhhhh shit, this is NOT good...

...while I've been driving my postal van.

As I said, this has been creeping up on me over about the last year or so.

I've been getting along on five to six hours of sleep per night for... a long, long time. Years. Decades.

I'm getting old enough, mid-fifties (though this has certain benefits; see below), that I figured my body was catching up to its systematic abuse over the years.

There are reasons I've been a chronic undersleeper for so long, but the most important reason is this: When you're asleep, you can't do the Shit That Needs To Get Done. (Henceforth, "STNTGD".)

There are various categories of STNTGD. The first category is Normal Shit; this includes things like your day job, and normal household chores and paperwork.

Then there's Gorilla Shit. This is stuff you need to do because of the 800-pound gorilla you have to live with. The 800-pound gorilla in our case is Hilde's SDRA (Severe Degenerative Rheumatoid Arthritis), which she's had for forty years, and which has slowly disabled her to a greater and greater extent. So the Gorilla Shit is not only the stuff you have to do to care for someone you love, but also to do the things that would have been Normal Shit for her before the disease.

Sidebar 2: We try and shift some of that other Normal Shit onto other people; we've always had housemates, and part of their "rent" has always involved helping out Hilde. Tabbi is Hilde's current daytime caregiver, and gets free room & board, plus a pittance of pocket money (a lot less than she'd get doing the same things professionally); it doesn't hurt that Tabbi is also sweet and amusing. But there's still a lot of things Tabbi can't do, that I have to do for Hilde myself.

And that 800-pound gorilla never goes away. In some ways, it's like being in a three-way relationship where one of the partners is an abuser. Except you can't get rid of it. You can't evict it, you can't divorce it, you can't call the police on it, you can't set fire to its bed.

You can mollify it somewhat, with drugs and surgeries and emotional support. But the gorilla is always there. Always.

And then there's the Fun Shit. The Fun Shit is the stuff you want to do. It's what you do in your leisure time. Reading. Writing. Blogging. Watching movies or television. Exercise. Cooking. Gardening. Building things.

The Fun Shit is the expendable shit. It's the stuff that gets dropped when the Normal Shit and the Gorilla Shit become overbearing.

Which happens a lot.

So one of the reasons I've been a chronic undersleeper for years is that I've always resisted having to cut back on the Fun Shit. I have had to cut back; most of my fiction reading is actually done on my lunch and breaks at work, television and Netflix is frequently less than ten hours a week, and actually getting out to a movie theater is a once-or-twice a year event.
Sidebar 3: Hey, go see Stardust. You'll thank me.

Blogging, both reading other blogs and writing on my own here, has probably been the most time-using Fun Shit I've done for the past several years. Not all of it's been fun Fun Shit; I read a lot of the political blogs I do to try and keep up with what's been going on in the United States and the World (more a case of self-protection than actual fun). So one of the things I've tried to do the last several months has been cut back on that blogging time, and the main casualty has been posting to UNDULANT FEVER; a lot of other peoples' blogs are being skimmed more rapidly and commented on less.

I'm not happy with this state of affairs, but I've had to take some steps to try and make more time for more sleep, to try and do something about the overwhelming sleepiness during the day.

(It's not just "sleepiness", a feeling of being about to fall asleep; there have been episodes, too many, where I've had "mini-blackouts" of a second or two at the wheel of my postal delivery truck. This is not good. This is, in fact, very very bad.)

I've managed to squeeze a little more sleep-time out of the day; I'm probably managing six to seven hours a night (tho' usually closer to six than seven) recently, rather than five to six.

I've also seen my doctor, who's prescribed me a medication called Provigil. Provigil is one of the drugs given to Top Gun pilots to help them stay awake and alert on long or repeated missions, so I call it my "Tom Cruise pill". (Alas, it doesn't seem to make me "Sexiest Man Alive", although, hey, the idea of an evil space alien named Xenu being behind all mankind's problems... that seems reasonable.)

The Provigil has worked pretty well the last several months. It doesn't keep you from feeling tired, but it feels like that cloud of exhaustion wrapped around your head and brain has been displaced about a yard up and to the right, hanging off in mid-air where you know it's there but it can't directly affect you. One pill generally lasts me about fifteen hours.

("Generally" in this case means that I hope it isn't losing it's effectiveness over time. It seems to have been less effective over about the last week, and Friday and Saturday I had to take two pills to get thru the workday. This is... worrisome. [And hopefully not a sign that all this is actually more than just long-term sleep-deprivation; "Helloooooo, narcolepsy!" is a phrase I'd rather not add to my vocabulary, thanks.] If this continues, I'll try to move up my next doctor's appointment.)

So, trying to squeeze out more sleep, combined with the Provigil, seems to have brought things back into a normal range (or, at least, for own own peculiar range of "normal") for the moment.

But in the long-term, I've come to the realization that we really need to make, eventually, some major lifestyle changes.

Basically... I need to retire from the Postal Service.

I mentioned above that I'm now in my mid-fifties; I turned 55 earlier this month. Fifty-five is the minimum age at which one can retire from the Postal Service.

Until recent months, my plan had been to retire in early 2010, when I would be 57 and a bit. By that time, the house mortgage would be paid off (we've been making extra payments on the principal for quite a while, so it's been shrinking pretty quickly), which would give us the financial leeway to be able to retire. (Not luxuriously, but at about the level of turnip-squeezing we've done for years anyway.)

The recent problems with the sleepiness and mini-blackouts have made me wonder whether I'm going, at this rate, to make it to 2010.

So I've been trying to pull together all our financial data, and examine all the options, to see whether I could possibly retire sooner, rather than later. We've been talking to our mortgage company and insurance agents to see if things could be rearranged to better advantage.

Some of the information has been encouraging: We could refinance the mortgage, and consolidate our credit card debt and the loan on the new car we recently purchased into it, and still have a minimum mortgage payment about two hundred dollars less per month than the current mortage. And our insurance agent tells us there's "additional cash value" on our insurance policies that could be turned into a monthly annuity.

But... if I retire right now, I'd only get about 61% of my current base salary, a drop of about, ohhhh, twenty thousand dollars a year. (If I worked a couple more years, that percentage would raise to its maximum of 65%.)

And... whenever I retire, that will mean the Postal Service no longer kicks in the lion's share of our medical insurance premiums. Meaning our monthly cost for medical insurance will go from less than three hundred dollars a month to nearly a thousand. Ouch.

Sooooooo... a full retirement isn't looking too likely.

I've been trying to figure out if retiring from USPS, and getting a part-time job (probably at a lot less per hour than USPS), will enable us to make ends meet. I'm still working on researching figures and juggling numbers, but even with a part-time job, the prospect looks pretty damn iffy.

So I've also been considering the idea of retiring from USPS and then getting another full-time job. In that instance, between the retirement money and the new income (even if it's at only half the pay-rate I'm getting at USPS), we probably could get by.

"Wait a minute, Bruce," someone asks, "If you get another full-time job, how will that help with the sleep-deprivation?"

Good question. And the answer is that if I only work 40 hours a week, I'll be saving a lot of time over my current hours at the Postal Service.

In nearly thirty years with USPS, not counting annual leave or sick leave periods, I think I've had two paychecks that didn't include some amount of overtime pay.

Usually, the overtime per paycheck has ranged between four and eight hours. But this has been growing in recent years. Part of this is that postal management has been, more and more, following the policy that it's cheaper to work your current employees more hours at overtime rates than to hire new employees and pay them benefits.

(real workplace conversation: "Do you think they're actually trying to KILL us?" "Probably.")

Within limits, this is okay. A few extra hours a week, I can manage. And that overtime money has largely been what's made it possible to pay down the principle on the mortgage as much as we have.

But it's gotten to be more than a few extra hours a week. This entire past summer, not only was I working several hours a day overtime, but I was forced in to work on almost every one of my scheduled days off.

This gets real old, real fast. For one thing, that kind of hours means you're pretty wiped out by the time you get home, so the Shit That Needs To Get Done that you would have done after a normal eight-hour day ends up not getting done. And when Sundays are the only day you can depend on having off from work, it means that even more STNTGD is left undone.

So, even if I have to take on a new full-time job after retirement from USPS, I'd still be working fewer hours than I have most of my postal career. (And a lot less than I have in recent months.)

There'd be another advantage to taking on a different job: I was hired on at USPS thirty years ago, so I'm still under Civil Service guidelines, which means I don't earn credits towards future Social Security payments. Credits from previous employers will only bring in about $500 a month, once I'm old enough to collect SS payments; so retiring from USPS and getting a different job would earn additional SS credits, and eventually higher SS payments.

And there's still another reason, even beyond health concerns, why I'd like to retire from the Postal Service: I'd like to try and start doing my fiction-writing on a regular basis. If I could, I'd like that to be the part-time or full-time job I end up doing in retirement.

Sidebar 4: Writing has generally tended to be something I've done on a "when available" basis. A lot of writers have day jobs, but have managed a degree of success by treating writing as their second job, and working at it regularly.

In my case, I not only have a day job, but my second and third jobs are as housekeeper and caregiver. So writing has been, at best, my fourth job.

For a fourth job, I think I've actually done pretty well, with about a dozen short stories published, a television script sold, and several anthologies edited.

(The most productive writing period I've had was during the early 1990's. The money from the script I sold to Star Trek: The Next Generation made it possible to take my name off the "Overtime Desired" list at work, so I worked a lot less overtime for four or five years. Most of the writing I did during that period was on movie scripts, trying to follow up on the success of that TNG script, but though I got called out to Hollywood for several meetings with production companies, no one ever actually put money on the table for a script of mine. [THE FOOLS! THE BLIND, IGNORANT FOO-- *ahem* A couple of those scripts were pretty damn good, if I may say so.]

I would not at all mind being the F.M. Busby of my generation. (Busby was a long-time science fiction fan, who didn't start writing fiction until he retired from his mundane job. Did pretty well, with quite a few novels and shorter pieces published over the several decades between his mundane retirement and his death.) Not at all.

So, to sum up on what's turned out to be a very long post:

I'm having some medical concerns right now, that may make it imperative that I retire from the Postal Service in the near future. Retirement, if we can swing it financially, may actually bring about some improvements in lifestyle and time-management. Things are still pretty much up in the air right now.

I'll try to post updates here, when there's something to report. I'd like to post some of the more normal type of blogpost I've done here previously, but the time for that may be iffy for a while.


This Blog Is Not Dead

Just not very active right now. (Yeesh! Over a month since the last post?)

There are some big decisions and big changes coming up in our personal lives in the months ahead. More on that, eventually. (It's good news, really.)

But the real reason I wanted to put a quick note in here is to report that last Saturday, July 21st, Hilde and I had our 30th anniversary. (And here most of our friends thought we wouldn't last more than two years together. I should have placed bets.)

That old chestnut about love growing stronger over time? It's actually true, sometimes. I can't imagine ever, in some other timeline, spending my life with anyone else. I was an emotionally stunted guy who wasn't even sure he could love someone else, and was positive that certainly no one would ever be able to love him.

Hilde proved me wrong on both counts. What a wonderful woman. (What a strange woman.)


From "Support The Troops" To. . .

. . . this:

Can we just make it official? Can we just say that those magnetic car ribbons have jumped the shark, so high and so far that they've reached escape velocity and are travelling far, far into outer space?


Damn It

Steve Gilliard has died.

People younger than me are not supposed to die, damn it.

People smarter than me are not supposed to die, damn it.

People who write better than me are not supposed to die, damn it.

People who are braver than me are not supposed to die, damn it.


Snarkaption Nation #6

"Don't be sad, John. I would never have actually VOTED for a suckup like you, anyway."


Don't Go There!

I'm still stuck at home, recuperating from the hip bursitis mentioned several post below. (Considerable improvement since starting the cortisone, but I still get achy and twingy if I'm up on my feet too long, and the range of motion on that leg is still limited before it hurts. My doctor is sending me for several weeks of physical therapy, so I'll be off work for a while yet.)

I should be using the time at home for catching up on some lighter stuff, like sorting, filing and/or discarding the stacks and boxes of old papers that have piled up, or getting extra work done on my fiction writing. And I've done some of that. But I've also been spending more time on the Internet.

In particular, I took a look at a particular website, and have been finding myself sucked in, to the tune of several hours a day.

The site: Yahoo! Answers

Man, that sucker's addictive! It's a site where you can post questions you'd like answered, and post answers to others' questions. You earn points for answers, extra points if yours is the "Best Answer", etc. Get enough points, and you become a higher-level participant. (No extra perks, but it's the honor of the thing.)

There are multiple categories to post questions in, and -- with the millions of Yahoo! users to draw from -- there are thousands of questions posted daily.

It's not a strictly utilitarian site. Some of the questions are clearly posted as "social" questions, just to get some conversation going. ("What's your favorite movie?")

And... and there's a LOT of this going on at Yahoo! Answers... there are many, many teenagers obviously posting homework questions, looking for someone else to give them the answers. (There was one guy who posted "Write me a one-page book report, and I'll give it Best Answer! You'll earn ten points!" Oooooohhh, how tempting. The slapdowns in the replies were, to say the least, pretty strong.) (The guy's response to the slapdowns? "You guys are all queers!")

But there are legitimate questions in many areas, and I've been able to share information and my uppity pretentious advice with a number of people. I've identified several books and movies people couldn't remember titles for, shared cooking advice, and given feedback to several people asking for input on their writing.

Yahoo! Answers is a lot like popcorn, or potato chips. It's easy, it's fun, and you can't stop taking one more bite.

In fact, one question was "How much time do you spend on Yahoo! Answers each day?" And nobody had an answer of less than an hour (and a lot of 4-5 hours a day.)

I wonder if there are 12-step groups for Yahoo! Answers addicts? (Maybe I should post that question.)

Must... exercise... self-restraint. Must... do... important shit.

Don't go there.


Snarkaption Nation #5

"First I shredded the curtains, and no one stopped me.

Then I destroyed the sofa, and no one stopped me.

Until finally. . . but you've only yourselves to blame. Mraaa-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

(photo from AP)



The Last Few Days...

... have been interesting.

Friday night ended up with a mentally disturbed guy threatening to flip out, a relationship ending in screams, and two people dead.

None of which had anything to do with me.

I've never watched the television program ER. But a night sitting in the waiting room at our nearby hospital's Emergency Room provided ample demonstration that an ER is a goldmine for dramatic situations: People under stress, people in pain, people in fear, people dying and people having to watch other people (family, friends) die.

One man had just had his wife die in a traffic accident. He almost made it outside before breaking down completely in long, extended, wordless howls of grief.

The night's other death was a child, with the ER nurses and doctor's scrambling as "Pediatric Code Blue" was announced on the intercom, a few moments before the ambulance arrived. A large Hispanic family arrived shortly after the ambulance, apprehension deep on their faces, and were escorted thru a door into the back room where the child had been taken; thru the door, I could see a minister arriving, Bible in hand. About a quarter of an hour later, the family came back out, moving slowly, some leaning on each other, most crying.

The young couple, the woman emotionally distraught, screaming "LEAVE ME! JUST FUCKING LEAVE ME! THAT'S WHAT YOU WANT!" at her boyfriend. (Husband?) Shortly after, they both left, without seeing a doctor.

And the young guy who had passed out at a dance, was cheerful and friendly most of the night, but became loud and belligerent after he'd seen the doctor, threatening to "flip out" if the ER staff didn't arrange a ride for him back to his halfway house. (Bipolar? Perhaps.)

What I Was Doing There

I'd woken up feeling yucky and out-of-sorts Friday morning, schlepped off to work anyway, and plodded thru the workday feeling bloated and slightly nauseated and wondering if I'd picked up a bug. Didn't think too much of it, other than wishing I'd stayed home, until late afternoon, when I realized that I had not taken a piss all day, in spite of drinking my usual -- fairly large -- amount of liquids.

Kidneys not working? That seemed a little more serious than just a bug, so after getting home from work, I hied off to the local Urgent Care facility. From my symptoms, the doctor there expected to find signs of a kidney infection, but the blood and urine samples (I was able to squeeze out a small sample; the doctor mentioning the word "catherization" was, ummm, motivating) came back negative. So he sent me off the the hospital ER for further, more extensive tests.

There, after more blood tests, an ultrasound, x-rays and eight hours of waiting (not a particular surprise; I wasn't having chest pains, wasn't bleeding, wasn't having problems breathing, could move all my fingers and toes, and wasn't on fire, so I knew I'd be pretty low on the triage list and would have been surprised if I'd been there less than four hours), I finally got into an actual examination room for a doctor to see me.

By this time, early Saturday morning, two things had happened: 1) I'd started feeling considerably less yucky than I had all day Friday, and 2) about five a.m., I was able to take a good long piss. So whatever the problem was, it appeared to have started to rectify itself. Which, since the doctor said all the tests had come up with nothing conclusive -- kidneys, gall bladder, pancreas, etc., all looked okay -- was a good thing. He wanted another blood test, to compare with the one from when I'd first arrived at the ER, so I ended up staying another few hours for that to be taken and processed.

I still wasn't feeling great, just not as bad, and having only had about an hour's worth of catnaps in the waiting room and examination room, I called work and took some sick leave for Saturday. Finally got home about ten a.m. and went to bed. (Hilde had stayed up all night waiting for me. Silly woman. I'd scared her.)

But Wait! There's More!

Sunday night, as I was preparing to take our Corgi, Madame Mim, around the block for her nightly walk, I noticed my left hip was starting to ache. Hadn't strained it, hadn't bumped it, wasn't sure why it was aching. It was worse by the time we got back to the house, and continued to grow worse as Hilde and I got ready to go to bed. Took several extra-strength Tylenol, and hoped it'd be better by morning.

Nope. Worse. Considerably worse. It wasn't just "aching", it hurt.

(I draw a distinction between "discomfort" and "pain": "Discomfort" is something you can focus away from, shove into the background, ignore by force of will and appropriate concentration on something else. "Pain" is a wet blanket over your brain, nails on the chalkboard, speaker feedback at high volume, a car alarm that you cannot stop, fogging your thoughts and throwing sand into your decision-making gears. This was pain.)

It hurt badly enough to call work and report in sick again, then call my doctor and get an afternoon appointment. (Thank you, whoever had just cancelled their own appointment at that time.)

Every Step An Adventure: Thoughts And Notes On Becoming A Crippled Old Fart:

By mid-day, trying to walk on that leg was a process of lurch and gasp, lurch and gasp, pause for a moment to catch breath, repeat until you reach a chair to sit in, or a bed to lie down on, or a wall to lean against.

When you're in pain, your "to-do" list shrinks dramatically, whether you want it to or not.

Even your "have-to-do" list shrinks dramatically.

When you're in pain, you realize just how much of your normal life was spent moving.

Pain makes you taller, because anything on the floor is a lot further away.

Pain makes you shorter, because anything on a high shelf gets further away, too.

Steps that used to be a handy way to change elevation turn into an obstacles.

Putting on a pair of pants becomes very interesting. Shoes, even more so.

"30-Minute Meal" cookbooks become a good thing. Microwavable entrees even better. Pizza delivery is Nobel-Prize worthy.

The dog will not understand why you can't take her for a walk tonight.

Realizing you can write a blog post about it is not adequate recompense for the experience.

The Pros Poke & Prod

So I see my doctor Monday afternoon:

"Does it hurt when I move your leg this way?" "Aieee! Yes!" "How about this direction?" "Aieeee!" "And this?" "Aieeee! Yes! Yes! I confess! I took the Lindbergh baby!"

His preliminary diagnosis is bursitis of the hip, and refers me to an orthopedic specialist. Until I see the ortho doc on Wednesday, treatment is pain pills. (There are some unused Tylenol #2 pills in the medicine cabinet at home, so I strike up a friendship with a really nice guy named Cody Deane for a while.)

So I see the ortho doc, who takes x-rays and gives me an examination. ("Does it hurt when I--" "Aieeee!")

He shows me the x-rays and confirms my GP's diagnosis. On the x-rays, the left hip socket has a small nodule that shouldn't be there, which he tells me is a lump of calciifcation caused by the bursitis. It's located deeper into the socket than most such lumps occur, where he can't get at it with a long needle to give it a direct shot of cortisone. So his prescribed treatment is an oral course of cortisone pills, starting with a heavy dose on the first day and tapering off over a week's time.

Began the course of pills this morning. I am pleased -- nay, relieved -- nay, ecstatic -- to be able to say that the cortisone is already starting to give some relief. The hip is still sore, still tender, still doesn't have a full range of motion, but I'm lurching less now and enjoying it more. Walking on that leg is just a bother now, rather than an adventure. I should be able to go back to work sometime next week.

Let's wrap this up with an appropriate image:


(written 5/1--5/3/07)

Last Minute Note, and credit where due: The "Lindbergh baby" joke comes from one of Jim Varney's "Ernest" movies. Ummmm... so I'm told. Because, like, you know, a sauve, sophisticated guy like me would never admit to watching ERNEST GOES TO CAMP or ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS, or any of the other Ernest films. No. Not me. No, no, no, no.


If Captain America Wasn't Dead, This Would Kill Him

This is just so, so wrong:

Captain America Arrested With Burrito In Pants

A Brevard County doctor dressed up in a Captain America outfit was arrested with a burrito in his tights. What he allegedly did at the police station got him into more trouble.

Doctor Raymond Adamcik, 54, would probably rather forget about the weekend when he was arrested on charges of battery, disorderly conduct, drug possession and trying to destroy evidence. It's not what you would expect from a doctor or Captain America.

The Palm Bay family physician was at On Tap bar as part of a pub-crawl with other medical professionals. It was a sort of costume party on a bus that would take them around from bar to bar.

Everything was fine until, witnesses said, Captain America started getting too forward with a burrito he kept tucked inside his blue tights, a burrito that ultimately landed him in jail.

It's certainly not the Captain America from the comic books. This one is accused of sinister deeds more fitting of a villain than a superhero.

On Saturday night, when a costume party full of medical professionals stopped at On Tap Cafe, police said Adamcik had a burrito stuffed below the waistband of his costume and was asking women if they want to touch it. When one refused, he allegedly took out the burrito and groped her.

The woman called police and, when they arrived, the officers wrote in their report "there were so many cartoon characters in the bar at the time, all Captain America's were asked to go outside for a possible identification."

The woman pointed out Adamcik and the burrito was found in his boot. He was taken to the police station. There, while in a holding cell, police said, he asked to use the bathroom and tried to flush a joint, also hidden in his blue tights, down the toilet.

"The officer observed him try to flush something into the toilet. He tried to flush it. The officer was able to reach inside and grab part of what he tried to flush," said Jill Frederiksen, Melbourne Police Department.

The doctor wasn't in when Eyewitness News went by and didn't return calls. He may now have to rely on a lawyer instead of his superpowers to get him out of the jam.

"This is definitely an unusual situation. We don't usually arrest people in costume," Frederiksen said.

No super powers got Adamcik out of jail. He needed $2,000 cash bail and then, once he got out of jail, he still stopped to pose for pictures on the way out. It is unclear right now whether the doctor could lose his medical license if he's convicted.

This is the sort of thing I tend to call "secular blasphemy". With great costumes come great responsibility; if you dress up as Captain America, then damn it, you need to act like Captain America.

He should have dressed up as, oh, maybe Lobo.


A Message From The Man In The Moon

I tend to press deadlines to the last moment (I got my taxes done in time last week, but it meant I went to work on three hours sleep), and posting something for International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day is no exception.

Without further ado:

A Message From The Man In The Moon

Luna's far side is covered
with boundless forests of trees,
immense and towering, tall.
Redolent with usefulness.

Wood, easily cut and shaped,
hardens to stonelike toughness.
Sweet fruit, zero calories,
antivenom to cancer.

I am chainsawing them all,
and burning the logs and limbs
to open the space required
to begin the strip-mining.

For fist-sized nuggets of gold,
head-sized flawless white diamonds,
boat-sized caches of amber.
And did I mention the oil?

Earthside's secret caverns
cloak shadowed lands and oceans,
brimming with fauna thought lost
in your own prehistory.

Sabertooth and giant sloth,
plesiosaur and T. Rex,
trilobites and armored worms,
and gasping mud-crawling fish.

The slaughterhouses open
the beginning of next month,
staffed with abducted children
wielding the keen-edged knives.

(Sixteen-hour shifts should leave
the kiddies worn and sexless.
But abortionists stand by,
if procreation proceeds.)

Hey, the topside slaves must eat
while they etch Nazca lines
of vilest pornography
on Tranquility's broad plain.

And by the way, one more thing
you all should probably know:
I am -- I am -- stockpiling
weapons of mass destruction.

If any of this upsets you,
if any of this angers you,
if any of this alarms you,
why don't you just come on up here

and stop me?

A list of other participants in IPST Day (plus a long list of additions in comments) can be found on Jo Walton's LJ site here. And still more listings at the International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Live Journal site. (Thanks to John Scalzi at Whatever for the links.)

A Few Links

Some links of interest:

LowerManhattanite opens a can of whup-ass on the Keyboard Commandos who think Virginia Tech students should have disarmed the man shooting bullets into them with their bare hands.

Via The Inferior 4, a moving message from Michael Bishop on viewing the body of his son Jamie (one of the VT shooting victims).

On a lighter note, Jennifer Crusie passes along the secret of The Glittery Hoo-Ha.

And over at Angel Station, Walter Jon Williams discusses various "Robins Hood" he has known. (Speaking of which, the first 13 episodes of the 1980's Robin of Sherwood tv series he mentions is now available on DVD; I recommend it very, very, very highly, even if it didn't catch Walter's interest.)


Snarkaption Nation #3

"Researchers announced today that with the
proper application of electroshock, drugs, and
waterboarding, even the most diehard Bush
supporter can be converted into a relatively
benign Chicago Bears fan."

The entire Chicago Tribune photo-series of Bears fans can be found here. Well worth a look.


This Is Just To Plausibly Deny

If you're going to commit parody, parodize the best:

This Is Just to Plausibly Deny
by William Karl Williams

I have deleted
the emails
that were in
the server

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were dangerous
so sweet
and so cold


Topic I

Because there just hasn't been enough talk and discussion about Don Imus lately.

Background, if you've been living under a rock: Last week Imus, on his talk show, referred to the Rutgers University womens basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's". Much upset resulted. Once it was realized how much upset, Imus apologized, and his parent company suspended his show for two weeks.

The sincerity of Imus' apology is suspect. His career has been mostly built around being rude, insulting, in-your-face offensive.

But what made Imus famous wasn't that. It was something called "1,200 Hamburgers To Go." 1200HTG was a classic prank phone call Imus made from his radio show way back around 1970. At the time, there were numerous university and college student demonstrations against the Vietnam War, not always peaceful; in a number of instances, National Guard units were called out to preserve order on campuses (not always successfully; see Kent State).

One such NG unit was called out for such purpose in Imus' home city. Imus called a local MacDonald's burger joint, and pretended to be the National Guard commander, who explained to a hapless clerk that arrangements for feeding the NG members had fallen through, and that he needed to order twelve hundred hamburgers to go. An extended conversation later, roping the MacDonald's manager in, and the MacDonald's had agreed to provide the twelve hundred hamburgers.

"Okay," Imus said, "We'll need two of those with pickle and ketchup, no, make it three with pickle and ketchup, and---" At which point the MacDonald's manager finally realized he was being put on and hung up the phone.

It was funny. It was classic. And... it was benign. It didn't put anyone down, or belittle them, or insult them. It just played a joke, and a good joke. It got airplay everywhere, and repeatedly. It made a local radio host into Don Imus, National Celebrity.

Flash forward a few years, to 1978, when a fellow named Dave Klause was staying with Hilde and me for several months following the Phoenix Worldcon.

Dave was a big fan of 1200HTG, and somewhere he came across a tape of Don Imus performing as a standup comic at a private club. He brought it back to our place, and eagerly popped it into our tape player for a listen.

It was... ugly. Imus' performance was racist, vulgar, scatological, way way over the edge of acceptability. And none of it, none, was even the least bit funny. It was just ugly, and hateful, and... literally... disgusting. After listening to about ten minutes worth, Dave turned off the tape player, a shocked look on his face, and said "Uhh, I guess we won't listen to any more of that."

You see, when Imus is on the public airwaves, no matter how much you think he's rude or offensive, he's actually behaving himself.

Because the real Don Imus is the man who slipped and called a group of black women athletes "nappy-headed ho's", the real Dom Imus is the man we heard on that tape from 1978.

Imus has described himself as "an equal-opportunity bigot"; he hates everybody. I don't think that's a joke. I think Imus is a man deeply poisoned by hatred and anger and bigotry; he just (usually) keeps himself (barely) on the acceptable side of behavior. I think he is a deeply ugly, bone-ugly, soul-ugly individual.

I said above that 1200HTG is a "classic" piece of comedy. It is. I wish it had been the product of someone who deserved the credit.

[02/29/2012 -- A rude, petty, and irrelevant endnote removed.  My apologies, Dave.]


Snarkaption Nation #2

"What? What is it? Why are you all laughing? C'mon, guys, let me in on the joke."

Add your own caption in comments.


... the one day of the year when tentacled monsters from outer space suck the brains out of your pet dog:

Original here.


Snarkaption Nation #1

Roxanne over at Rox Populi decided to close up shop there (she's now a contributor to Pandagon) a few months ago, which meant my favorite source of "Write Your Own Caption" contests dried up and blew away.

As the saying goes, when your supplier vanishes, you have to become a dealer yourself.

So I'm going to try posting occasional news photos here (I'll try for about weekly), with my own snarky, mean-tempered captions attached, along with an invitation for readers to contribute their own captions in comments. Like so:

"This is my personal suicide vest. Political suicide."

Add your own caption in comments.



In the news recently has been the story of Matthew Dowd, political advisor to the White House, a VIP in the election campaigns of 2000 and 2004, who in an interview with the New York Times, announced his deep disaffection and disappointment with the Bush administration.

There was one section of the NYT article, written by Jim Rutenberg, that I particularly noted:
"In the last several years, as he has gradually broken his ties with the Bush camp, one of Mr. Dowd’s premature twin daughters died, he was divorced, and he watched his oldest son prepare for deployment to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist fluent in Arabic. " [emphasis added]

Hmmm. Does this sound like what I think it sounds like?

That, in short, if you have children in the military, as long as you're a "loyal Bushie", they won't be sent to a combat zone? (Dowd's son joined the Army in late 2004, two-and-a-half years ago.)


Mea Cuppa

Over at Whatever, John Scalzi recently explained why he doesn't drink coffee:
"Coffee tastes like ass."
For most of the subset of caffeinated beverages known as coffee, Scalzi's correct. Most coffee, especially black, unsweetened coffee, doesn't taste good.

Some coffee's are spectacularly bad. There's a local deli chain, Miracle Mile, that makes one of the best Ruebens sandwiches in town. But their coffee is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Harsh, bitter and burnt. It is so bad that every time I go to Miracle Mile, I order another cup, because traumatic amnesia has wiped the last experience from my mind. (And, perhaps, I'm living proof that hope springs eternal, for surely MM's coffee must have improved since my last visit. Sadly, no.)

But there's a lot of coffee that's merely bad. Coffee shop coffee, usually, for some reason or another. Hotel coffee shop coffee is almost invariably bad.

Nonetheless, I've been a regular coffee drinker since 1981. Didn't like coffee before that. But then I had some home-brewed coffee while Hilde and I were visiting Diana Paxson and the other folk at Greyhaven... and it actually tasted... good.

Here's my secret method to making coffee palatable:
Use HALF the amount of ground coffee called for in the brewing instructions.
Some people have called my coffee "wussy-ass-wimpy". Yeh, yeh; these are the same type of people who drink Everclear straight.

You can make it stronger if you want, but don't use more than 2/3rds of the recommended grounds. Past that, and you get too high a concentration of the bitter oils that Scalzi so evocatively describes.

(Why do makers' coffee instructions invariably call for a larger amount? Gee, could it possibly be that using a larger amount of coffee means that you'll BUY MORE COFFEE, MORE FREQUENTLY?)

There's also light roast vs. medium roast vs. dark roast. I use the light or medium. The dark roast coffees have a burnt taste to me. If I wanted that, I could suck on a charcoal briquet.

One of the ways I judge a pot of coffee is by holding the glass pot up to a light and checking the color. The ideal pot, with the light shining thru, should have a dark red color like a good piece of cherry amber.

Also, clean the pot occasionally, wiping out any accumulated oils on the inside of the pot. Otherwise, you can end up with something like the break room at my postal station, Home of the World's Filthiest Coffeepots. (I'm not kidding about those coffeepots; we should open up a sideshow and charge the public to look at them.) ("Small children and pregnant women are advised against seeing this show.")

Yes, I use sugar and creamer. Yes, I'm not a Real Man. Tough.


How Do YOU Spell R-E-L-I-E-F?

Been meaning to post this since last week:

When I was sick with a respiratory crud back in January, my doctor ran some bloodwork on me. It showed some unexpected results:

I was anemic, several points below the minimum normal range. [mild alarm] So my doctor had me do a stool sample card.

Which tested positive for blood. [moderate alarm]

So I got scheduled for a colonoscopy and endoscopy at the Scottsdale branch of the Mayo Clinic. (I'd had both procedures previously in 2004, with negative results, but had been figuring it would be 2009 before I was due for a repeat exam.)

Two polyps were found in the large intestine, snipped, and sent for biopsy.

The good news: The polyps were benign.

The bad news: They were the type of polyps that can turn cancerous if left alone for five or ten years. The endoscopy of the esophagus also showed a small patch of Barrett's Esophagus tissue, which can also turn cancerous over time, at the entrance to my stomach.

So: Relief that my anemia wasn't from cancer. (Best guess is that the anemia was caused by irritation from the aspirin and ibuprofen I'd been taking fairly regularly; I've switched to Tylenol, and the bloodwork readings have improved, though not quite to normal range yet.)

But a certain measure of annoyance that, damn, something else to have to keep an eye on. (The doctors recommended a fresh endoscopy every 2-3 years, and colonoscopy every 5 years.) After having fretted most of my life about my family's wretched history of cardiac problems, now I have to keep a cancer-watch too? Damn.


Dead President Walking?

I was listening to Air America Radio this afternoon while driving around on errands, and a clip was played from a recent speech by George Bush.

It wasn't remarked on by the radio host, but I was struck by how dead Bush's voice was. He was clearly reading words off a paper given to him. His voice was flat and effectless. He paused, inappropriately, numerous times, as if having to re-focus on the words he was reading.

It was the voice of a man tired. Exhausted. On the point of collapse. A man who has lost hope. A walking dead man.

Earlier in the week, Bush had given his "angry" speech, accusing Democrats of partisan politics in their investigation of the DoJ/US-attorneys-firings scandal. I put "angry" in quotes, because my reaction to that speech was that it wasn't an angry man making an angry speech, it was a man acting, or trying to act, like an angry man. It was blustering, not anger; it was bad acting, and horribly, horribly unconvincing.

And it didn't work. The investigation continues; subpoenas for White House insiders are looking more and more certain. Damaging emails, and more evidence of systemic White House dishonesty, keep coming forth. Bush's administration seems, finally, to be beginning an accelerating slide to public disgrace and repudiation.

It's always been pretty clear that one of the main psychological dynamics driving George Bush has been the drive to out-do his father.

And it's pretty clear now that he's failed in that drive. He won't be remembered as a great President. He won't be regarded as a great warrior, or a great diplomat, or a great leader.

That's been clear to a LOT of people, for a LONG time. And now, maybe, it's become clear to George Bush too.

People have an amazing capacity for denial, for rationalization, for self-justification. Alcoholics, drug addicts, abusers, all can deny the wreckage they've made of their lives and the lives of people around them, for years and for decades. A lot of them go to their graves never admitting their own weaknesses and failings.

But maybe George Bush is reaching his own personal "tipping point". Maybe it's finally become undeniable, UN-deniable, that he is a failure as a President, as a leader, as a human being. Maybe he's looked into mirrors one too many times, and is finally starting to see a true image of the man he's become, and the legacy and reputation he will leave behind him.

It's not a pretty sight. It's the face of failure.

Everything he wanted, he will not have. Everything he hoped for -- fame, adulation, success -- he will not get. And he is only now truly beginning to realize this, only now beginning to KNOW this, to know it within his mind, and his heart, and his soul. The denial no longer works, the rationalizations no longer work, the self-justifications no longer work.

This is a very uncertain period. If my speculations above are anywhere close to reality, there are several ways events might proceed from here, all of them with a certain amount of danger attached. But if my reading of Bush's voice during that speech is accurate...

...then I think we may actually see a President leaving office via suicide -- Bush reportedly keeps Saddam Hussein's gun in his Oval Office desk -- in the next few weeks or months.


King & Kin

For about the last year, I've been hearing buzz about a new writer named Joe Hill in the dark fantasy/horror field. He's been getting awards nominations for his shorter work, and his new novel, Heart-Shaped Box, has gotten onto bestseller lists (and onto the book tables at CostCo, which is an even surer sign of success). I haven't read any of his work yet, but I've been wondering about this hot new writer with the same name as the famous union organizer.

Turns out "Joe Hill" is, sort of, a pen name.

Recent news has included articles on the forthcoming comics adapatation of Stephen King's Dark Tower saga. An excerpt:
King, 59, lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, Tabitha. He has three grown children: Oldest Naomi King is a Unitarian minister and is working on a nonfiction project; Joseph Hillstrom King recently wrote "Heart Shaped Box," under the pen name Joe Hill; and youngest son Owen King published a novella in 2005 entitled "We're All in this Together."
I suppose this bit of information might have been mentioned before, but I hadn't encountered it until now.

The most likely reason a famous writer's son might decide to write under a pen name is to show that he can do it independent of his parent's celebrity. But in the case of Stephen King, if it were me in Joe Hill's position, I'd make the same decision for a different reason:
His monstrous bevy of fans, however, are unfazed by literary criticism. At the release of the first "Dark Tower" book, thousands poured into a conference room at the Comic-Con summit to hear him speak. After a lengthy standing ovation, they stood in awe, photographing King and repeating over and over, in a tone much too casual for someone they've never met: "You are a genius," and "You are my hero."
I first saw Stephen King in 1981, at the World Fantasy Convention in Orlando, California. Now, WFC is a convention oriented towards professionals, so the majority of the attendees tend to be writers and editors themselves. People who, you'd think, would be pretty blase' about another writer, even one famous, sucessful, and at the top of the bestseller lists.

Not with Stephen King. Virtually every time King showed himself in public, he'd be surrounded by other WFC attendees holding out books for him to sign.

That is not a lifestyle I would like to live. I'd like to be a more productive writer, a more successful writer, a more widely-read writer.

But, man, I would not want that level of success, where fame and celebrity become dominant elements in one's life. And I wonder if Joe Hill didn't have some thoughts in that same direction when he chose his pen name.

LowerManhattanite Updates The Classics

Over at The News Blog, guest posters are filling the gap while host Steve Gilliard is recovering from major surgery. (Get well, Gilliard!)

Among the guest writers is LowerManhattanite, a frequent commenter on TNB who's garnered a reputation for a savage wit, a "ripping yarn" style, and a general regard as The Non-Blogger People Most Want To Have His Own Blog.

In one of his recent guest posts, LM updates a classic comedy routine for modern times.

If you can read it and not laugh out loud, you're unhinged!


Bro Ken Cur Ses

I just wanted to note for the record that my oldest brother, Gary, had his 60th birthday a few weeks ago.

Why is this particularly notable? Because he reached that milestone without having had a major heart attack, or dying from one.

In my paternal family line, no male has reached the age of 60, going back to at least before WWII (when my dad's father died at the age of 41), without a major heart attack. In fact, only one of my uncles lived to age 61, and that was only after several bypass surgeries.

How did the family curse finally get broken? I think mostly because of 1) recognition among family members that cardiac problems really ARE a chronic and major menace to males in our line, and 2) that medicine has progressed to where early warning signs can be detected and steps taken for prevention and treatment. (I think all four of us brothers are taking Lipitor daily.)

It's nice to think that when I retire (current plans are aiming at early 2010, when I'll be 57), I might actually have more than just a couple of years to enjoy retirement. (Considering how many books I've bought over the years, and never found the time to actually read, I'll need every moment I can get.)


Traffic Grumping

On my way home from work earlier this week, I'm passed on the road by a group of three motorcyclists riding shiny, new-looking, colorful (red, blue and yellow) Suzuki sport motorcycles.

They get ahead of me, and we're all toodling down the road, when the guy on the yellow motorcycle puts his left foot out and lets it drag along the asphalt. Great way to destroy an expensive pair of boots, I think.

And then... he swings his right leg over the bike, and he's standing/sliding/surfing on the asphalt as he's dragged along by the motorbike, holding on by the handlebars. After about five or ten seconds, he swings the right leg back up onto the bike, then picks up the left and resumes riding normally.

Watching this was terrifying. One ripple or dip in the asphalt, a bit of road debris, and I'd have had a human being bouncing and tumbling along the road in front of me.

This kind of stunt riding is something that, if it needs to be done at all, should be done (like the fine print on auto commercial stunts says) on a closed track by experienced drivers, where the road conditions have been pre-checked carefully.

If the rider's intention was to make the white-bearded geezer in the minivan driving behind crap his pants... well, it came pretty damn close.

- - - - -

The above is the post I meant to write Tuesday evening right after it occurred. Stuff happened, and I put off writing the post.

Friday afternoon, I'm on my way to the grocery store, and see that the traffic in the opposing lanes is restricted to one lane as police direct traffic around an accident site. Fire engines, ambulance, flashing red & blue police lights.

And, laying in the road on its side...

Oh, yeh. You got it. I don't really need to say it, do I?

...a bright yellow Suzuki motorcycle.

The cynic in me wants to say "Evolution in action." But the better part of me is wondering if there's a family doing a hospital-bedside vigil, or having to make funeral arrangements.


How I Spent My Evening

My brother-in-law and his wife are off camping at tyhe SCA's Estrella War this week, so they asked me to stop by and feed their dogs each day while they were gone. They have five large dogs and about four four-or-five-month old puppies from a recent litter.

So I get to the house this afternoon and go through the side gate into the back yard, and find...

...that the heavy unused metal-barred room divider that had been leaning up against the storage shed had been pulled over (presumably by one of the larger dogs) and had fallen on top of one of the puppies.

The pup was pinned tightly across its hindquarters, and it was crying and struggling to get out. It had also crapped itself, spectacularly, probably from a combination of pain and terror.

I lift the gate off the pup (trying to ward off half a dozen dogs and pups trying to jump on me and lick me), and it crawls under a nearby old car, dragging one leg like it's broken. Aw shit, and I realize I need to take the pup in to the vet.

So I find an old empty planter large enough to hold the pup, get it out from under the car and put it into the planter; it doesn't cry out when I move it, which is encouraging -- maybe the leg isn't broken after all -- but it's still shaking and trembling, and I'm worried about shock, so it's off to the vet's anyway.

Which, between drive time, waiting room time, and exam room time, takes up the next several hours. The doctor finds nothing broken, though the pup is limping fairly strongly and probably had some deep bruises under its fur. But no apparent permanent damage. They take the pup into the back room and give it a bath to wash the puppy crap off, for which I'm quite grateful. (Sorta like the old gas station offer, I guess: Fill up your tank and get a free car wash.)

So I take the pup back to its home and put it back with the other dogs. By this time, it's fully dark, so the next half-hour spent trying to find my cell phone is fruitless. (I'd called home from the backyard after finding the trapped pup, to tell them I'd be late getting back, then realized on the way to the vet's that my cell phone was no longer on its belt clip. Somewhere between the back yard and the car, it had come off, possibly when one or more of the large dogs was trying to jump up on me. I'll go back in the morning, when it's light, and try to find the phone again. Hopefully it hasn't been used as a chew toy.)

I don't know if my in-laws have named the pups yet, but I think if ti was up to me, I'd name that puppy "Panini".

And that's how I spent my evening.


A Reader's Moral Quandary

Over at Duchy of Burgundy Carrots, hostess Queen of Carrots fights temptation:
This week I had a library book that was so absolutely and forlornly lost, even after six weeks of searching, that I simply had to up and pay for it. Fortunately, it was only four dollars. Unfortunately, it wasn't one I particularly would be thrilled to own, if it ever does turn up. But the occurence did put a thought in my head. Suppose I find a book at the library that I really, really want to own. Suppose further that this book is rare or out of print, and even further that it looks like something the library is going to ditch soon in favor of more shelf space. Of course, the chances of me happening across it at just the right library sale are very slim indeed. How evil would it be to, ah, "lose" the book and pay for it, and then "find" it again but decide not to bother about getting my money back? Evil, evil, evil. I blot the thought from my mind.

Let's recast this scenario into science-fictional terms:

If you had a time machine and could go back to the Library of Alexandria just before it was destroyed, would it be wrong to grab as many texts as you could and jump back into the present with them?

Would that be "stealing"? Or would that be "preemptive salvage"?

(That very old, very decrepit, one-return-away-from-discard former library copy of an UNKNOWN collection sitting on one of our shelves has nothing to do with this discussion. Nothing, I say.)