The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Motorcycle Fever

I couldn't have been more than 6 when I first straddled a motorcycle. It wasn't running, of course, just propped up against the wall of a garage down the street from my father's bike shop. Another of those pop-up memories of mine. And just as real, just as full of emotion. A Fall day, the empty lot with a dead leaf carpet of brown and red and dull gold. Overcast, cold but tolerably so, no wind. And quiet.

It's one of the few pop-up memories that has a known trigger. Though it often haunts me on its own terms. All I have to do is see a motorcycle. Nothing more.

Like most young boys, I was intrigued by anything with wheels. And motors. Which could take me places. I blame it on the railroad. I lived a block from the Long Island Railroad tracks in my early days. Just commuters mostly, a little freight, not much industry on east Long Island at that time. Mostly farming, maybe some commercial fishing. I don't know. But to a young boy, it was the railroad to the Wild West and adventure.

I had seen old movies on our TV with motorcycle cops. Very impressive images. Big men riding big motorcycles, racing after cars, daring. That later morphed into the rebel image. Marlon Brando in "Wild One" epitomized this image for years. Well, until the biker movies of the 60s.

This song didn't help either...
The Terror of Highway 101

My brother bought a motorcycle, a used Triumph Bonneville, when I was 14. I rode on the back a few times. Something I hate to do. It's not the same, it's not actually riding, you're just baggage. Just an additional weight.

I acquired an Allstate scooter from a brother-in-law when I was 15. He claimed it was beefed up. He was probably lying. It was ugly but I didn't care. It wasn't cool but I didn't care. It had two wheels and a motor. It was freedom. It lasted a month until my father insisted I give it back. He was opposed to these dangerous things. Another reason to desire them.

I would not own a motorcycle or scooter until I was in my last two years in the Navy. My first year in, a friend and I rented these little Japanese buzzbomb mopeds and rode them full out down the coastal highway south of L.A. No helmets, no sense of mortality, no thought of anything but the rush. Owning any kind of vehicle while in the Navy is difficult. I was on a Destroyer and I was out to sea often, vehicles need to be tended to, parked somewhere, secure. It took some time but I figured out the logistics eventually.

A Triumph Daytona (500cc twin), then a Bonneville, then a BSA Spitfire Mk II. Oh, I loved that BSA. It has its own story. That story is bittersweet.

I hungered after Harleys, like all good American boys, but could never find the resources to buy one. The British bikes were good substitutes.

Once you ride, once you commit to it, it never leaves you. I used to take rides across Los Angeles, I have no idea just where. I would fill the tank, pick a freeway, or a fairly open road, and just go. Sometimes up into the Hollywood Hills, or out to the east, or up toward Santa Barbara along the coast. The engine's vibration sets a rhythm inside you, you merge with it, and you just go. Destination is unimportant, it's all about the journey.

After I left the Navy, after the BSA was gone, life intruded. There would be a couple more bikes but good sense and responsibility would pressure me to give them up.

I still hunger after Harleys. I still want that feeling of freedom. I still miss the ride.

Friday, January 30, 2009

What am I Doing?

What do I do when I am not reading other blogs, playing golf, sleeping, eating, watching TV, or posting? Well, other than the crossword and jigsaw puzzles and the solitaire games and reading books, I scroll through the news online.

Google has a News feature. It's not bad. You can choose to view as many headlines as you want, read various publications, follow links to blogs or opinion pieces. I am pretty much addicted to it.

So, what have I read about today? Click on the underlined links for more.

The mother who gave birth to the octuplets the other day already has 6 kids. And, according to CBS, the family had filed for bankruptcy. I suspect the bloom is going to be off this particular rose pretty soon.

Mount Redoubt volcano in Alaska is about ready to blow. This is interesting, as is anything that touches on the Ring of Fire.

Thumbs down for the movie "Taken" and for "New in Town". I don't go out to movies much but I like to know what's coming to HBO and Showtime in about a year.

Peanut butter is becoming a danger and you need to know who makes the stuff in that jar or on those crackers. Man, I like those crackers!

Apparently, North Korea is unhappy about not getting enough attention lately so it's making noise. And Hamas is declaring victory. Haven't heard from Chavez in Venezuela in a few days.

Business is bad, the economy sucks, there's some allegedly important football (no, not soccer) game is coming up Sunday, and so on.

Never mind, most of this is just too depressing. I gotta go get another cough drop.

A Quick Note

Yesterday I answered a challenge of sorts and was rewarded. I thought it was an interesting experiment and will do it again in the future.

Should it be a regular feature?

If so, should it be weekly? Monthly?

In fact, I have nothing much to say today. I am still recovering from this miserable flu. My battles with flu are always protracted. A consequence of a past illness which took control of my life for two years. I will probably get around to telling that tale but it is a depressing and angry one so do not encourage me.

I would like to thank everyone that participated in yesterday's discussion and encourage them to continue it. If not on here then in their homes, at work, anywhere they can.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Question For You

The Logistician , The View From My Tiny Window, has provided me with an interesting proposition. Basically, turn this blog over to the readers for a day. of course, he assumes I have more than a couple of readers and that these poor, misguided, souls will want to opine on some subject.

I am then left with providing a topic, or range of topics, to titillate your imaginations and induce you to put fingers to keyboard. That's a difficult task. After all, I have enough trouble finding something I want to write about. Still, as I have written in the past, I am very much interested in your opinions and learn from them. So, perhaps I will try.

There is one topic that is near and dear to my heart. It is quasi-political so I have avoided it. I will suspend my ban on politics for the day in order to explore it.

I am no youngster. Over the years I have seen changes in this country that have pleased and horrified me. From the Norman Rockwell America of the 50s and early 60s, through the turbulent protest and cultural wars of the mid 60s and early 70s. The Carter years, The Reagan years, the Clinton years, and the Bush years. The thing that bothers me most is the splintering of America. Over those decades, we have been breaking down into groups. And these groups have grown more and more hostile toward each other.

So, here's my question to you:

Are we disintegrating as a nation?

Bonus question:

If so, what can you, or I, do to help patch it up?

I hate Being Sick!


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Each Day a Little Brighter

Well, I managed to arise again from what seemed like my deathbed earlier in the week, get some coffee, and find the computer. The Others in this house are starting to think I am malingering. This happens whenever I get sick. I am granted a 48 hour grace period and then I start getting these "looks". You know the ones. The ones dripping with suspicion that you are milking the sympathy.

That's right. For two days it's all...

"What can I get you?"
"Would you like some chicken soup?"
"Here, let me fluff your pillow."

...and peace and quiet most of the time.

Just when you get used to the attention, to the caring, to the comforting, it gets shut off. For no discernible reason it becomes...

"Are you still in bed?"
"You don't look so bad, I need something from the supermarket."
"When are you going to put my New Computer together?"

Yes, it has come to that. Faye has started to become suspicious that my illness was feigned to avoid putting together her New Computer which arrived, coincidentally, on the first day of my plague.

But you don't believe that, do you?

If you're bored but think you're smart, try this link.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Can I get a Re-do?

Please excuse Douglas for not posting yesterday, he was sick and couldn't get out of bed.

My Mom

I have this DVR. It has a button on the remote that allows me to jump back 15 seconds and watch something over again. A "re-do", if you will, the TV equivalent of a Mulligan in golf. I can go back even further if I wish. As far back as the beginning of the program. It only works with the TV's that are hooked up to it, the one in the bedroom doesn't have a DVR so I can't do it there. That doesn't mean I don't try.

I also get the urge to re-hear what I just heard the tail end of on the radio. I really need a re-do button for life. Just think, I could undo unnecessary insults and stupid remarks. I need an Omega-13. (see Galaxyquest, the movie)

Just think how useful such a device could be. That time you called the boss an anal opening. *poof* you get to change to "You are brilliant!" Or the time you told the wife those pants did make her look fat. *poof* And you get the chance to say "Sexy, baby! Hubba hubba!" instead.

Yes, that's what is desperately needed today.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pop Up Memories

A piece of dry ice in a rain puddle behind a store. The water bubbling from it. It was cold, maybe in the 40s, overcast, a gray day. I was 4.

Sitting on the floor in my bedroom. Green linoleum. I stick a knife (tableware, dull) into the socket in front of me. The feeling is odd but not painful. A vibration; intense, warm. I think I was 4.

Petting a goat behind a small lunch counter/deli down the street from my father's bike shop. It was fall, I think I was 5. It was sunny. I have no idea why they had a goat.

Large goldfish frozen in a fishpond in front of a house. Winter, of course, maybe in January. I was perhaps 6.

Drops of blood spattering up the wall and blinds on the window in the kitchen when I shook my hand after slicing my finger. I think I was 6. It was spring, cool but sunny outside. I was home alone after school.

Getting kicked out of the movie theater for pelting the screen with pea shooters. There were two us, I think it was the youngest of the Joyce kids. I was 7.

Coming out of the drugstore on Main St. after spending a long time reading the comics on the rack and finding myself completely unfamiliar with my surroundings. Disoriented. I was 8. It was sunny but it felt cloudy, the sky seemed an odd color, I was unsure which way to turn to go home. I later equated it to a Twilight Zone experience. It was the first time it happened, it's happened many times since. Almost always after concentrating on something close at hand for an extended period time.

The above are some memories that pop up in my mind, unbidden. In fact, while I was writing this, I tried to conjure up more (because there are many) but I couldn't. These memories are involuntary. Like a muscle twitch, a little tic in the eyebrow. But very real. More than just a picture in my mind, the sense of being there is very strong.

Brain spasms.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Get Wit It, Folks

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is
probably the reason so few engage in it."

~Henry Ford

I read a post the other day and it made me think. That's a Good Thing. Everything we read or see should make us think. Well, maybe I should rephrase that since we ought to be thinking all the time. After all, if we aren't thinking, we'd be brain dead and someone would be trying to harvest our organs. Let's say it made me think about something in particular. And that particular thing is wit.

Wit has no agenda of its own. That is, wit can be from the Right or the Left. It can be morally upright or sleazy. Regardless of the political or moral bent of the speaker or writer, wit entertains. If it didn't, we would not call it wit. Wit implies intelligence. Wit implies cleverness. If I call someone a wit, it means I do not find him to be a dullard. It may not always mean I like his wit, though.

We like witty sayings. We celebrate great wit.

Wit can border on insensitivity.
"I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."
– Mark Twain

"A fellow with the inventiveness of Albert Einstein, but with the attention span of Daffy Duck."
- Tom Shale on Robin Williams

Wit can be self-deprecating...

"What makes him think a middle aged actor, who’s played with a chimp, could have a future in politics?"
- Ronald Reagan commenting on Eastwood’s bid to become mayor of Carmel

"If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?"
- Abraham Lincoln

To be a wit is good, just don't do it halfway.

Friday, January 23, 2009



Imagine yourself living 50 years ago. TVs were black and white. Cars were very big but roomy and comfortable. Gas was cheap at around 25 cents a gallon. But few people made more than $1 an hour. Average annual income for men was around $3800, for women about $1200. There were no personal computers, no skateboards, no I-pods, no cellphones. There were car phones but these were actually radios and handled as such by operators for the phone company. And they were very rare. Music was on AM radio or on a phongraph record, made of ceramic or hard vinyl. Movies were the main public entertainment venue. Indoor and outdoor theaters were popular. Popcorn was 10 cents a bag. Most films were still in black and white but color was becoming more popular.

Imagine yourself living 100 years ago. Automobiles were extremely rare and called, for the most part, "horseless carriages". Airplanes were a novelty, a new invention. Gaslamps provided light, indoor plumbing was rare and only in cities. Average income was less than $400 a year. There were relatively few movie houses, films were silent and short. Child labor was common, as were 6 day work weeks and 12 hour workdays.

Imagine yourself living 150 years ago. Slavery was still legal in 15 states out of the 32 that made up the country. No cars, no airplanes, no buses. You walked or rode a horse. No movies, no electricity. Kerosene lamps or candles lit your house. If you were fortunate, there was a cast iron stove for cooking. Rural homes were most likely still cooking over the fire in the fireplace. Which also provided the heating.

Now, try to imagine what it will be like 50 years from today. Or even 10 years in the future. In fact, write down your predictions and store them away. Then, in 2019, retrieve them and see how far off the mark you were.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I'm sure I sent you that thank you note...

DETROIT (AP) -- Some of those who are supposed to endure snow, rain and gloom of night to deliver the mail have resorted to hiding tons of it in garages, a self-storage unit and the dark of their basements.


Sometimes Youth is Not Wasted on the Young

Though I do not wish to use this blog to espouse politics, nor to debate those things, I do not want to ignore issues of human rights. Therefore, I am making this exception...

"A youth is to be regarded with respect. How do you know that his future will not be equal to our present?" ~Confucious

Ares has a post on "Clouds and Letters" which talks about the suppression of some Philippine students' right to freedom of speech. These students faced suspension over what they wrote in protest of the school's administration and policies. I did not read what they wrote and have no idea what it is. I did not seek to find out what they wrote because I did not want to be affected by my own biases that might be triggered by the themes. In fact, the particular issue they protested is unimportant to me.

Ares' post made me consider some things. In a comment to her I spoke of my experience in school. In the 50s and early 60s, freedom of speech was not extended to students. We were minors, we had fewer rights than adults. The idea was that we needed to mature, to learn, in order to understand the responsibilities that go with those rights. Our rights were subordinate to our parents' and to the authority of adults.

Of course, we chafed against those restrictions. But authority (the school administration and the general public opinion) was adamant that students had no rights not granted by the school. We were not yet citizens or, perhaps, people. We had to wait until after we graduated to have those rights bestowed on us.

To some degree, I regret we did not demand to exercise those rights when I was in school.

This exercise of freedom of speech is part of social evolution. Rights are deemed, in the US, to be inalienable. It means they are not confined to adults, they are inherent to being human. This is an idea which is spreading throughout the world. Will young adults, children, abuse those rights? Can a right such as freedom of speech be abused? Can recognizing this right in non-adults harm them?

Students might step over the boundaries adults think should exist. By doing so, they test the commitments a society has to preserving those rights. They also test the reality of those rights.

There is danger in allowing individuals to define boundaries for themselves without regard for consensus within a society. But there is a greater danger in restricting rights, for whatever reason, without the consent of those affected.

I believe it is the school's responsibility to gain that consent through reason, to gain consensus, rather than to dictate. I also believe that it is necessary that the student learn that there are consequences when the consensus is ignored. In other words, there are boundaries that society may deem appropriate. What better way to learn this than through pushing against them?

And what better way to learn what boundaries are, indeed, appropriate?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Fourth Image in the Fourth File

I am confused. I realize I am often in this state and that it can be tiresome to you folks but bear with me. Someone has tagged me. Alan at "Laid Back Think Tank" has tasked me to post a column with, and about, "the fourth image in the fourth file stored on your computer". The phrase does not make sense to me. Alan had no trouble with it, apparently, but its meaning escapes me.

What is the "fourth file" on my computer? And what if, assuming I puzzle that out, happens if that file has no images at all? Or only one, or two, or three?

Do you understand my confusion? Can I be loose in my translation of this request? If so, I might choose the fourth file of my Pictures folder. Or the Fourth of My Pictures file. Or the Fourth image of my fourth folder below my Pictures folder.

I know that the actual fourth file on my hard drive has no images. Well, I am pretty sure of that anyway. You see, that file is likely to be part of the operating system files. And, until it gets to one that holds icons or somesuch, it would mostly be executable code or gobbledygook to the layman.

And the "fourth image" in this "fourth file". I don't think I have any files that have more than one image. Perhaps I should. Maybe I am doing this computer thing all wrong. Should I merge several photos of like categories into single files? But then I would have to categorize them. And that could mean putting copies of many into many different category files because most of the images on my computer mean several different things to me.

Maybe what is desired is the fourth favorite image? How would I judge that? Each image I look at is #1 at the moment I view it or something to discard from sight immediately. In other words, there are only two rankings. It's basically binary to me... Yes or No.

Here are some of my "fourth images", each would require their own post to explain completely:

Found on a free wallpaper downloads site.

A Xmas card from my son and his family. Britney (L) and Brianna, my most wonderful grandchildren.

Brianna at a dance class some years ago.

Brianna leaping. Taken a few years ago. She is so much more graceful now. And can be seen at YouTube: Amazing Grace

More of Brianna...

You will be amazed at Brianna's talent if you choose to click on the above links, I promise you.

And there is another requirement. I must inflict this on another person, another blogger. Several, actually. How do I do that when I don't really understand it myself? Not to mention that I am philosophically opposed to "tagging". I understand it is a game, as we often played in our neighborhoods and playgrounds, and that games are usually fun. But they are unfair if they are not voluntary. You agree to play "Tag", you don't simply get grabbed and thrown in the game. The game that comes to mind where someone is "drafted" without his permission is called "Keep Away" and is cruel.

In accordance with my philosophy, I will not draft anyone into this game. I will not ask anyone to participate. I will apologize now for being a "stick in the mud" and walking away on our playground to watch the pretty girl on the swing instead. If you have a blog, I ask you to consider tagging yourself with this task and post whatever "Fourth Image from the Fourth File" means to you. If you do not have a Blog then you can email me (see my Profile) with the same and I will post the best one (in my opinion) of what you send me (this is your chance to do a "Blog and run" as a guest blogger).

Maybe I think too much about things, analyze them too deeply. But that is, after all, who I am.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spreading Smarts

I was watching the Boob Tube yesterday (NFC and AFC championship games) when I noticed an ad from IBM about "building a smarter planet." The concept is interesting in itself. But beyond the obvious there is something else that crept into my fertile brain.*

We are expanding the power of our smartest people.

That's right. Instead of an intelligent person dabbling in his arts in some research facility or university, sharing his findings among the intellectual elites through lectures and books, he can be right there with us in everyday life. He can be assisting all of the rest of us as we struggle through the many little puzzles we must solve each day.

The ability to make fire ages ago gave man the ability no other animal had. Some ancient, almost ape, forerunner of man was a genius of his day and figured out how to create fire. Not just capture it from a burning tree or plant, not just to keep it going, but to create it where it had not been before. And then he did the truly amazing thing... he shared that knowledge with his peers. Beyond discovering how to make fire, the ability to share knowledge has been key to human civilization.

We all know that knowledge is power but it is limited unless it can be shared. It might help a few but it can be lost if they are lost. Without passing that knowledge to others, knowledge can easily be lost and progress will be slow. Modern man's greatest inventions have been in the arena of communication. From cave pictures depicting hunts (which help teach the younger tribesmen how to hunt ) to paintings and sculpture, to clay tablets, to papyrus, to schools, to paper, to pen and ink, to printing presses, to photography, to moving pictures (silent to sound and monochrome to color), to televisions, to computers. All of these things have spread the ideas and knowledge of the relatively few geniuses to the masses of people.

Today we are seeing the proliferation of computing into all kinds of machines and tools. Instead of the tool user having to learn how to use the tool, the tools can now function more on their own. The knowledge of the tool maker built into the tool. This is passing the knowledge without the recipient having to learn.

Let's look at ovens. After man figured out how to make fire, he began to cook his meat. He did this on open fires. Eventually he learned to contain the fire so it could be used more efficiently. Stoves first, cooking on top, then ovens where the heat would be all around the food. But no control beyond knowing how much wood (fuel) to use. Ovens got more sophisticated, wood was replaced by gas and electricity. Ways to measure heat were found. Ways to control the amount of fuel were found. This allowed more precise control of the cooking process. Cooking can now be done more easily, more uniformly, more efficiently. This was sharing the knowledge, bringing it to the everyman.

Timers were invented, then integrated into the ovens, making it possible to cook more precisely through use of technology. Smart ovens are out there. One day, you will select "roast beef, medium rare", put the meat in the oven, and come back when the oven reports it is ready. Or maybe robots will do that for you.

As people think of new ways, better ways, more efficient ways to use a tool, we are starting to build that knowledge into the tools we use everyday. Take a good look at cars, for example. Computers monitor fuel mixture and spark. It was not so long ago that these were set by the driver, later by mechanics when they tuned your car. But those computers now also monitor tire pressure, control safety devices, warn of possible danger, remind us of service needs.

IBM's advertisements talk of a smarter world. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it's just Smarter Tools. Tools with "smart people" built into them.

And we are hardly noticing.

*(aside: it is fertile possibly because it is full of manure).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Multi-Tasking and my Brain

Do you multi-task? I used to think I do but I have learned a better name for it is "time slicing". I was reading an interesting blog post when this came to me. The blog piece was called The Conductor Guru (click on it, it's worth viewing). The blog itself is interesting, fascinating really, but the piece got me thinking (as most things do) and I started writing this post. Drafting it, actually, because my posts are composed on my computer. A concept or idea is formed and then I try to flesh it out, make it grow.

Many of these ideas, like many of my plants, die. And, like a plant, I have no real idea what it will look like when it is done/grown. But I digress... as usual. My purpose was to frame the idea for you. And the idea is multi-tasking and what it really is: time slicing.

Time slicing is assigning segments of time to a task. Multiple tasks with each task getting a "slice" of the total time. For example, a computer without multiple processors splits up the time between the various applications that it is running. We just call it multi-tasking.

But humans do it at different levels. We read and listen to music and our senses act like autonomous adjunct systems. Part of us but detached, in a sense. We think the mind truly multi-tasks but I have come to believe that it, too, time slices. There is a broad time slicing that is obvious; read some words, paying attention to them, considering them, and the music we hear is there but it recedes into the background. Still there but not requiring attention. We are aware of it but our attention is drawn to the words we are reading.

At some point, the mind shifts back to the music as the priority. Some specific group of notes, a part of a verse, triggers that shift. Once in the forefront of our mind, this triggers emotions and, perhaps, memories that are associated with the music. After a varying span of time, you return your attention to whatever you are reading and those thoughts, those emotions. Times shifting has occurred on a large scale. But it also occurred on a smaller scale all during the major shifts. You are still reading, and you are still listening, seemingly simultaneously.

You are also breathing, dealing with saliva in your mouth, perhaps drinking a beverage, perhaps munching on some food or treat, hearing sounds other than the music (voices of other people in the house or room, birds outside the window, cars going by, the refrigerator cycling, and so on) and all of these things are registering in your mind.

When I was working for the phone company, my job was to maintain a large computerized long distance switching system. It was not one computer, it was a system of many different computers linked together. I was going to add "to perform one overall function" but that's not true, it was to perform the many functions required to connect and maintain a phone call. At the heart of this system was something called the Central Controller (the "CC" as we called it). The "brain" behind the system.

Now, to return to where all this came from... The CC in that system was like the conductor of a symphony. The various pieces of equipment, the autonomous processors which performed a multitude of functions involved in setting up and maintaining a call, were all constantly monitored and directed (when needed) by that CC. The CC is to the switching system as the conductor is to the orchestra.

And all of the thoughts expressed above, all of the ideas, were triggered by the various inputs around me as I wrote (as I write) this piece. The lecture by Itay Talgram (composer and conductor), the snippets of performances and rehearsals of orchestras under other conductors, the music Faye was playing while she tapped away on her computer (conquering the world, playing solitaire, or doing a puzzle online), the taste and smell of the coffee I was drinking, the coolness of the air around me, noting the titles of other posted articles on that website, and much more, all contributed to what I was (am) writing.

All at once, seemingly, but each one thing getting a microscopic bit of my brain's time. And that is how my brain functions constantly.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Shopping Trip

I took my sister-in-law, Frances, out to shop for a mattress set. I am amazed at how expensive they have become and a little bit by the hi-tech nature they now have. But that's unimportant. I am usually amused by the sales techniques used by retail salespeople and I was not disappointed in this case.

One of the things tossed into the mix, besides the supposedly deep discount because the mattress was a "close-out" item (sales-speak for "we had a tough time unloading these so we'll pretend we're selling them cheap"), was the offer to remove the shipping fee. You see, the mattress store did not have a warehouse here. No, they use a central warehouse up in Orlando which serves all their stores in Florida.

I don't know about you but I find it odd that the buyer must pay a fee to have a product delivered from Orlando because the seller chooses to warehouse the product in another town. You want me to buy your product? Then it is your responsibility to get it to me.

Well, that got me to thinking about how car dealers always have a "destination charge". It's one of the things I always challenge car dealers on. Hey, the car is here or I can't buy it, right? Every other retailer folds the overhead of bringing the product to the store, why should that be a separate charge just because it's a car. The dealer, I tell them, should "eat" that charge as a cost of doing business. That always gets a laugh. I also ridicule the "dealer prep" charge since they do nothing more than wash the car (and often that's just a cursory wash) and put on a dealer emblem.

I then started thinking about those sticker, decals, and emblems that are put on the car, usually on the trunk lid, naming the dealer and the town. I always tell them to remove them. When they refuse, I tell them that I will charge them $20 a month for advertising if they choose to leave it on. They usually laugh about that, too. Even after I tell them I am quite serious. The chuckle is a little more nervous though. Then I ask them again to remove the emblem. If they refuse, I get up, thank them for their time and start to leave.

The salesman (or woman, let's not be sexist here) will then get a bit panicky. They cannot believe I would just turn down this "great deal" over a little thing like that emblem. My answer is always "Yes, that's exactly what I will do." You see, if it is such a little thing, why not remove it? Why should I be the one to compromise? They will do it. Because it is just a little thing and they really need to sell cars. Especially these days.

We really have the upper hand with car dealers in this economic environment. I bet, if we stood our ground, we could get rid of that "destination charge" and the "dealer prep" charges right off the bat. Just tell them the price you want to pay is somewhere less than the MSRP before those additional charges. And stick to your guns. After all, it's the dealer that wants to sell that car, you really don't have to buy it.

While the economy is not in its best shape, we have an opportunity to change the way things are done. Little things, granted, but important enough to make you feel more in charge (no pun intended) of the shopping experience. Just follow some simple rules:

1. I do not have to make this purchase at this time or at this particular place.
2. I do not have to settle for less than I really want.
3. It's my money.
4. No one can take advantage of me without my permission.

That's all it takes.

Oh, and we did buy the mattress set. No delivery charge, no add ons. It was still more than I think a mattress is worth but Frances liked it.

I hate to shop.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sebring is My Kind of Town

Having gone through my formative years (puberty, the rest are irrelevant to males) in south Florida, I see it as my home, my life's point of reference. That's probably why I kept returning to it after living in other parts of the country. After years of bouncing around the country, I found a nice place to retire here in what I call southwest central Florida.

Sebring is a small city, famous for a little known annual event. Sports car enthusiasts may know about the 12 Hours of Sebring but it seems precious few others do. I knew about it even when I was unsure just where it was. But, at the time, I was a teenager with a fascination for something I could not afford: sports cars. Now I am an old guy who still can't afford them. Some things do not change.

Sebring is more than a city wrapped around a single event. It is an anachronism. It appears to be stuck in the 50s or maybe the early 60s. And it is not too interested in getting unstuck. This is one of its charms.

Sebring's median age, as of the 2000 census, is 42. Which, oddly enough is also the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything.
(If the reference mystifies you then click on it)

I think the median age fluctuates in Sebring. You see, the population here grows and shrinks with the seasons. Around mid-October it begins to grow. By the end of November, it has pretty much expanded to twice its summer level. I would guess, since maybe 95% of those coming in are retired, that the median age jumps to something above 55. To be crude, we are an Old Fart's Town.

(click on the pictures to get a larger image)

Here are some landmarks...

Harder Hall, currently owned by the city, optioned out at least twice. A story in itself.

The City Pier. It sits on Lake Jackson, a large but shallow lake. At its lowest during a drought, it has been walked across.
The Highlands County Courthouse. If you look carefully, you will see a boarded up window on the top floor (third from right). Probably broke during one of the hurricanes three years ago.

A strange phenomenon occurs about the time that it gets difficult to get into restaurants during the early bird meals, traffic slows. The main road here is US 27, a 6 lane divided highway that runs north-south. The speed limit is, for the most part, 55 MPH. This is the posted limit (it actually is 50 MPH just after entering the city limits and goes back up within 2 miles). The average speed, during the summer, is about 40 MPH through that stretch when you figure in traffic lights. In the winter, that drops to 20 MPH. For some reason, the newcomers can't seem to go over 45 MPH and they love to drive side by side by side. This amounts to a rolling blockade.

This is okay, really, because nothing I have a need to go to is more than 15 minutes away from my house in winter (10 in summer). That's one of the joys of living in a small city. That's tough on our cars, though, since they don't get to warm up properly.

I can deal with that.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Snippet of Life - Goin' Fishin'

I think I was 14 when Pat, Marty, and I decided to rent a boat and do some fishing on the Intra Coastal Waterway. None of us were good fishermen nor were we expert boaters. However, we did manage to get up the cash needed and the boat rental people didn't care much about anything beyond that.

So, one fine Saturday morning, Marty's mom dropped us and our fishing gear off at the boat rental and fishing shop, told us to be careful and left the three of us on our own after signing for our rental. We purchased some shrimp for bait, got familiar with the boat and motor, and began our journey.

The rental dock was along the Sunny Isles Causeway (AKA Sunny Isles Blvd, AKA N.E. 163rd St, AKA S-826). You can actually look at this spot (though I am not sure it is a boat rental place anymore) on Google Maps. So I did. I will, in the next few pics, our route out to the Intra Coastal. It's only an approximation of the route because the topography changes with the growth and death of the mangrove trees. The channels through the swamp widen and narrow over time, even disappear and new one emerge.

Once out on the Intra-Coastal, we traveled south toward Haulover Cut, keeping to the western shore along the mangroves. The mangroves are bushy, low growing, trees which grow in salty or brackish water. The low lying coastal areas of Florida are heavy with mangrove swamps. The green in those pictures were all mangrove trees. Within that green were little passages that led deeper into the swamp. There is good fishing among the mangroves, we'd always been told and Pat, who was the one who claimed to know about such things, assured us we'd catch some snapper if we went down one of these passages.

We went in but we caught nothing but the only bites we got were from mosquitoes. And, after nearly getting stuck on the roots of these trees, we went back out onto the Intra Coastal. We wasted away most of the day riding up and down the Waterway, trying to avoid being swamped by the pleasure boats roaring by and getting sunburned. Sunscreen did not exist in 1960, tans were seen as healthy and good. Sunburns were painful but not considered life threatening.

Around 5 PM or so, we headed back to the boat rental dock. I should say, we began our journey back because we never got there... at least, not by boat. About two thirds of the way back we took a turn that we shouldn't have. We followed the channel deeper into the `groves until we were pretty much lost because, as we went in, we passed other channels of similar size which would lure us in as we tried to find our way back to the main channel. If you've ever played that old computer game "Adventure", you will recognize the phrase "a twisty maze of passages all looking alike."

We were lost! As it got darker, we got more lost. Eventually, we decided the only thing we could do was try to reach the road we glimpsed from time to time as we wandered through the trees swatting mosquitoes and pretending we were not overly worried. After an hour more of searching for a big enough break in the tangled trees, we found a spot we could drag the boat through and over some roots to the roadway.

The trek west to the boat rental dock was full of bravado and apprehension. We figured we were in big trouble. It turned out the guy at the dock wasn't angry with us and accepted that we had left the boat several hundred yards east quite calmly. He did relate, however, that my father had been by a couple of times and was "really P.O'd!" My father had been expecting a call for a couple of hours and had made two trips in the last hour, looking for us. I called him from the store's phone.

That was our last boating adventure. Not counting the kayak Pat and I built which sank in one of the rockpits we used to swim in the first, and last, time we launched it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Snippet of Life - The Party Animal

When I was 17, my parents were preparing to move us to Orlando from North Miami Beach. I wasn't real enthusiastic about the move. It was 1963, Disney World didn't exist. Orlando was a cattle and citrus town. It was "crackerland". But, at 17, you don't get a vote.

My father was a salesman who had to travel throughout the state of Florida. The idea was that it would be less trouble for him if he lived in the approximate center of the state. He could visit the businesses he sold to more often than once a month. Yet, he would be home more because more of them were reachable within 2 hours driving time. It didn't work out as planned, these things rarely do.

Anyway, they were off for a weekend and I was left alone. Seventeen years old, male, with car, no supervision, what were my parents thinking? It wasn't like I could be trusted, I had already proven that by the occasional phone call from the police station, by running away for a few days, by the suspensions and detentions at school, by the... well, you name it.

They were gone one full day when I went to a party at a girl's house. Coincidently, her mother was out that evening on a date. Gigi was a sweet young thing. I had been in 4th grade with her, her mother worked at the same office my mother did. But we didn't run around in the same crowd nor were our mothers friends. Still, I had learned about the party.

One of my summer pastimes was to crash parties. My hoodlum friends (see "Yakety Yak" c. 1958 by The Coasters) and I would cruise around the usual hangouts and learn of a party then go there. We were never invited. We didn't get invited to a lot of parties.... but we managed to show up at them often enough.

This one was different, I was not exactly crashing it, I was riding with someone who was invited, I knew the girl throwing the party, I knew her mother, we had mutual friends. At the time, that was like receiving a formal invitation in the mail. Comparatively speaking.

It turned out to be a good party. Lots of kids, many unattached females, some beer. And a dog. I knew about the dog. A German Shepherd about a year old. Big. Strong. Scary. Not for me, I was not afraid of dogs at all. I had been to her house a few times with a friend who liked Gigi but was afraid of the dog. He, the friend, had climbed up on the roof of my car one time when the dog got out into the yard. I had petted the dog, made friends with him, thought nothing of it.

The dog was lying on the floor between a couple of girls who were fussing over him. He seemed calm, maybe a bit bored. I came over, knelt in front of him and ruffled his neck. He growled; a low, nasty, growl. I started to back away, to stand, but he came up quick. He hit me pretty hard even though I managed to get a hand in between us and against his throat. He dropped away as I made it to my feet.

There were screams, I recall, I turned to my right, hand over my mouth, toward a sofa where three girls were sitting. They were screaming, eyes wide. I had my hand over my mouth but it was filling up with blood and I pulled my hand away. Blood flew everywhere. More screams. I stood there. Someone handed me a towel. The friend I had come with grabbed my arm and said something about a hospital.

The ride was a blur. I let him drive. I recall he seemed to be driving slowly. I told him to hurry... it came out "Sep onit wih ya?" I was having a little trouble pronouncing words since my upper lip was split open. I kept touching the area, trying to figure out how much damage had been done. My friend would look over, fear all over his face, and offer the encouraging words of "Oh jeez!" or words which I will not repeat here. I was not encouraged.

It couldn't have been more than a 15 minute ride that seemed like an hour. He wheeled up to the emergency room entrance and I headed in while he parked the car. I still had the towel over the lower part of my face. A nurse asked if I needed help. I pulled the towel away, she turned a bit pale, her eyes widened, and said, "Come with me!" I was even less encouraged.

She put me in a room and told me to lay down on a table. An intern walked in, took one look, and walked out. I was beginning to get a bit nervous. The intern came back and explained he had called in a doctor, a plastic surgeon, he felt would do a better job than he could. I was getting even less encouraged.

The intern cleaned up the wounds while I waited for what seemed like forever for this doctor. The nurse asked me for contact information along with my name and age and all that vital stuff. I had them call my sister. The doctor showed up, gave me some encouraging words as he assessed the damage and asked if he could take pictures before and after. He wanted to use them as a teaching tool. I don't remember the encouraging words.

First, though, came the shots. Novocaine, he said. Undiluted, he said, Going to burn a bit at first, just for a second, he said. It did. I think I left permanent fingerprints in the metal table as I tried to scream. I don't think I made a sound but I opened my mouth wide. Which hurt also. A lot.

After that, things seemed to move along quickly. Stitches went in, chatter from the doc (a lot of "hmms" and ahhs"), pictures (flash, flash, flash). He talked about his preference for sewing up a wound like a shoelace. I could feel him tugging at the stitches, snugging them up. I couldn't see anything because they had laid a cloth over my face, covering my eyes.

I had asked to see a mirror when I came in but no one would provide one. After they were done and I was getting ready to leave, I asked again. They still wouldn't give me one. I asked where a restroom was, they told me. I was not stupid, I knew there'd be a mirror. I looked. It was bad but not as bad as I had been fearing. But ugly in the cold glaring light.

My brother-in-law and sister had shown up to collect me sometime during my sewing lesson. They took me to their house. I stayed there for the next few days and nights. By the next morning, the selling and discoloration had set in. Black, blue, green all mottled together. The jaw on one side had swollen up nicely, there were smaller wounds under my chin, in addition to the upside down Y on my upper lip, in a semi-circular pattern. His lower teeth made those. A puncture wound on my chin, halfway between my lower lip and the point of my chin, from one of his fangs completed the picture.

I remember the doctor saying I was lucky because the dog was young and his teeth were sharp. They had made clean cuts. Oh yeah, I felt real lucky.

It only took me two years to overcome the urge to run screaming from chihuahuas, a bit more for the larger breeds. There were more than a few bad dreams involving canines. Within a year, my sister had decided she wanted a German Shepherd for a pet.

I am no longer afraid of dogs. I don't seek them out. I just don't run away screaming.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Word Makes You Cringe?

I was reading Pearl's witty and wonderful blog* and noticed a phrase, a nickname, she uses for her son... "The Boy". Apparently, this term of endearment was lifted from Bill Cosby who, I am sure, used it to great profit.

I don't especially like the term. This may have something to do with the fact that I am of the male persuasion and have been for most, if not all, of my life (there may have been some short period of time in my mother's womb where this had not yet been determined). In any event, I have never liked the term "boy".

It has nothing to do with skin color since am sort of a mottled pinkish beige when not burned a bright tomato red from falling asleep in the sun. No, this has to do with deep insecurities and angst about growing up before I had, in fact, found myself grown up.

The first time I heard the term was as a small child of perhaps 7. A little girl of a similar age who did not know me wanted to gain my attention. Rather than come up to me and tap me on the shoulder, or run off in search of a mutual acquaintance, she chose to shout (in that shrill voice unique to little girls), "Hey boy!" I did not want to respond. There appeared to be anger in the voice. There appeared to be something demeaning in the way she poke the word "boy".

It's possible, in falling off the monkey bars (which I was often wont to do at that age), I may have crushed the little bag holding her lunch, making her peanut butter and jelly sandwich into a gooey, unrecognizable, probably uneatable mess. It is possible, therefore, that she had some legitimate reason to be a bit unhappy with me at that moment. I don't exactly recall. I only know that the epithet made me cringe.

And so I ignored her, limping off toward some other area of the playground where I might escape this mini-harpie's harangue. After all, it wasn't my fault she left her lunchbag so close to the danger zone surrounding the monkey bars, was it? Besides, I had other problems to worry about since the reason that I fell was due to my foot slipping, causing me to forcefully straddle one of the bars and, in shock and (severe) pain, tumble to the ground.

In any event, this trauma (reinforced by a number of bicycle chain slippages) has great psychic impact each time I hear or read that particular word... "boy".

You can imagine what I had to go through just to write this but my therapist says it's important. I trust her but I sometimes wonder why she giggled when suggesting this exercise.

* About which I am jealous and envious because she is much better at this than I could ever hope to be... And thank her for yet again providing me with something to write about.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snippet of Life - The Sixth Grade

I think the sixth grade was the second major turning point in my life. Moving to Florida was important and probably laid the foundation for my feeling that I lack a home town but events in 1957 changed more than just me. But sixth grade was important because certain events converged.

I went to a brand new school that year, Greynolds Park Elementary, one built to serve our particular area (known as North Miami Beach). It had just been finished during the summer and was an airy, friendly looking building. I looked for pictures of it but there seems to be none. There were no hallways in the classic sense. All classes opened onto covered walkways. All classes had windows opening out to the open fields. The windows opened, really, because there was no air conditioning. When it got hot (most of the time in south Florida), the classroom door was opened and the windows were opened. As I recall, this was pretty much all the time. It was more unusual to have them closed.

Schools today look more like prisons to me. More like this picture.

Sputnik was launched in October of 1957 and that really shook up the country. How could the Soviets have jumped ahead of us? The Space Race was on! Mr. Moltane, my 6th grade teacher, was almost obsessed about this. He wanted us all to get involved in science, to consider careers in engineering. He was a short, stocky man, balding and gruff looking. He was passionate about science so he emphasized math. Since that was a subject I enjoyed, I did fairly well.

It was an interesting year for me. I got involved in the Audio Visual group. These were students who ran the old 16 MM film projectors, nothing more. But I got to watch a lot of those old Bell System educational films. Very simplistic explanations of atomic energy, rockets, even computers. But they did give me something of an understanding of these things, something which helps me even today. Maybe that's where I picked up the habit of breaking things down into simple representations to understand them.

I worked in the cafeteria for a half hour each day, mostly running racks of dishes, silverware, and glasses through the dishwasher. I also worked a half hour each day in the principal's office which consisted of mostly sitting around or running notes to teachers. I read more than anything as an office assistant, anything available.

I was a "good boy" then. I got good grades, I paid attention. I participated.

When you're 11 years old, you start experimenting with life. Maybe looking for role models, or new ones to replace ones that seemed outdated or silly. The late 50s was a time when juvenile delinquents were on a lot of people's minds. Rebel Without A Cause, which came out in 1955, had sparked a lot of interest in the subject and it was becoming a great concern. Being "cool" became important.

That's when things started to change for me. I didn't want to be "square" (as nerds were called then). I was already reading books by Kerouac and Ginsberg, delving into the Beat Generation. I also read a lot novels and accounts of juvenile delinquency and street gangs of that period. I was curious about many things and knew I couldn't experience them all myself but I wanted to try.

I started getting into a little trouble at school. We used to make "match guns". These were simple devices. You took an old wooden thread spool, a piece of elastic, put them together and fired kitchen matches from them. Of course, we fired them at each other half the time. One day, I got caught at school with a pocket full of kitchen matches and that was the end of my "good boy" days.

I blame it all on having an older brother. Since he was two years older, I looked up to him. We didn't get along, though, never had. Still, whatever he did, I wanted to do. Because he was "cool".That meant BB gun fights, smoking cigarettes, and just being a juvenile delinquent in training.

My best friends were all about the same things. Pat, Marty, Mike, Steve, "The Ger" (Harold was his name but he hated it), and I began hanging around together which meant nothing but trouble. We weren't bad kids, really, just bored and curious. And adventurous.

Sixth grade was really just the beginning. It would be in junior high that we began building reputations.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hitting the Wall

Every so often I lose my creative impetus. That is, I lose the ability to conceive an idea that will develop into something useful or entertaining. It's not so much that I can't expand on an idea, which also happens, but that there is no idea to expand.

It is one thing to plant a seed in barren, arid, ground. It is another to have no seeds for even fertile soil. I suppose the end result is the same but it is more frustrating with the latter. Imagine the farmer with rich loam all around him, with farm upon neighboring farm with wheat and corn growing high, standing there with an empty seed bag.

That's me, the seedless one. Not a clue rattling around in my skull. It is not writer's block, not really. That happens more often for me when I have many "seeds" but no "soil" in which to place them. There is an abundance of these filling up my "Unpub" folder. Each has a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph, but there they sit. Lifeless. The seed planted, growth started, and then it droops and dies. Like my house plants always did. I am good at growing dead things.

Once an idea dies, there seems to be nothing to revive it. So, when I have a dearth of ideas, I cannot simply delve into the old leftovers and expand on one of them. They are sterile, useless.

Here's a sampling of the titles:

Annoying Television Scripts
My Computer Evolution
New Widget
Planned Obsolescence
The Dream

All of these died as quickly as I thought them up. I have decided to do something with them. I am creating a folder called "Cemetery" and I will place them there so that they will be left to Rest in Peace with the respect they deserve.

What do I do when I am without a clue? One of my favorite things is to go to Google, click on Images, and enter a word. It doesn't matter what word, any word will do. There will be images for it, or related to it. Sometimes those images will then trigger some idea and that idea will grow inside my brain until a concept appears.

Or not.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Should I change?

I am considering changing my image. Well, just my profile picture actually. I could use a little help with that. You see, I have never been good with decisions like this. So, here are my current choices...

They are: Desperado Doug, Brilliant Idea, and Innocent Me.

Or, I can keep the one I have which I like to call Old Fart.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins

Because I have been much too serious lately, I will make my penance for the next few days. The following is not a lecture or sermon so try not to fall asleep.

There was a series on The History Channel recently called "The Seven Deadly Sins". I figured this is important information to know. The History Channel is a good source for this information since, while it is not always historically accurate, ironically, it is always entertaining and I am not likely to fall asleep while it's on.*

The Seven Deadly Sins are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. You may be surprised to know that these were derived from the bible, not taken whole, and that there was originally 8 of them. Some were combined, some were tossed, a couple were added, and all were clarified. Since this was done by a Pope, it must have been right since Popes are infallible. For a number of years, I thought the Seven Dwarfs of Snow White were allegories to this. Especially as done by Disney. I am still not sure they aren't.

In case you were curious, the original eight were: Gluttony; fornication; avarice; sorrow; anger; discouragement; vainglory; pride.

We'll stick with the Seven mainly because I know them so well.

Lust is not so much a sin anymore, more like a virtue. It seems to be celebrated and desired these days. Otherwise you would not see all those Cialis and Viagra commercials everywhere. And they would not emphasize the .001% risk of priapism. Lust used to be reserved for the young but, with the advent of those pills, Victoria's Secret has opened a special Senior's Section.

Gluttony used to be a rare sin. But according to the latest obesity figures (no pun intended), it seems to have made a resurgence. It was actually celebrated a couple of times a year, Thanksgiving and Easter. Now it is three times a day.

Greed. (may also be called "covet") We all learned as children that greed was bad. Our older brothers and sisters taught us that. Since they did not have older brothers or sisters, they never learned it, just practiced it. In more recent years, we learned that Greed was good. Michael Douglas in "Wall Street" taught us that. And, as evidenced by the recent economic troubles, some of us learned that lesson too well.

Sloth is one of my personal favorites. If I had my way, Sloth would not be a sin and would only be known as its favored alter ego, Efficiency. Anytime I can do more with less effort, I do. Otherwise, I just do as little as possible. I like to conserve my energy. I need it for practicing Gluttony and Lust.

Wrath is a bad one, I'll agree. I have given it up though I practiced it often enough in my younger days. Since I discovered Sloth, though, it has fallen out of my favor because Wrath just takes too much energy.

Envy is interesting. It's also common. While Greed is "I'll take what you have", Envy is "I want what you have and, if I can't, I'll do my best to make sure you get it taken away by someone else." While Greed seems to be the underlying principle of the Republican Party, Envy belongs to the Democrats. In truth, all politicians practice both, along with several other sins. (I know, I said I would avoid politics in this blog but I couldn't help it)

Pride is one I just do not understand as a Deadly Sin. It's confusing. Even the Amish, who revere humility above all else and eschew pride, practice it. Think about it, a whole community that basically prides itself on being humble? I'd say pride is not bad unless it is false pride. That leads to all kinds of trouble. Real pride is not bad. You can be proud of your children, proud of your skills at something, proud of your driving record, and (on occasion) your country. None of that is bad.

In fact, none of the Deadly Sins are really bad, if you practice them in moderation. It is only when one or more take over your life, become an obsession or a constant, that they seem to be harmful. So just forget everything I've said and go enjoy yourselves.

I am not sure where this guy fits in but I'm pretty sure there's at least three Deadly Sins involved...


* I always stayed awake in History class in school, too. Mostly. I'm pretty sure anyway.

Friday, January 9, 2009

What I mean to say

A few days ago, I posted a piece where I explained how I fretted and worried over words and phrases. How important meaning and nuance are, how I struggled with expressing what I intended. It's a difficult thing to do, express a thought you have, communicate deeper meanings.

Each thing that I post, each article, is intended to tell you about me, about how I see the world, and to invite you to consider how you view it. Just yesterday, I posted something that had a certain meaning to me. But I did not realize that it could be interpreted in so many ways. It drew a number of comments that ran the gamut, I thought.

The comments are important to me. They tell me that the piece had been read, that it provoked thought, perhaps stirred some emotions. They guide me toward future postings, provide me with ideas about which to write. So do comments on other blogs. Even when I do not comment on someone else's article, I read the comments and sometimes get ideas from them. I suspect all bloggers do.

The last comment I made on "Wouldn't it be nice..." was:

"I am often amused, amazed, perplexed, and/or impressed by how various people perceive what I write."

I could have said " the reactions to what I write." but that wouldn't have truly expressed what I felt. There were a few different perceptions of the meaning of the piece. The reactions stemmed from those perceptions. So, in that way, the reactions were all perfectly correct.

The perceptions, however, were personal. They were yours, not mine. I remember classes I took at various times where the instructor would be explaining what the author of some poem or book or essay meant. In each case, found myself wondering "How the bleep does he know what the author meant?" Even if I agreed with the meaning presented, I still questioned it.

Only a few teachers seemed to want to know what we, the students, felt was being expressed. The best of those did not question the validity of those feelings.

I seem to recall, a long time ago, some reporter asked Bob Dylan what his lyrics meant. His answer was something to the effect of "Just what they say." I could be wrong about that, it could have been John Lennon or someone else, or I could have hallucinated the entire conversation (it was the 60s, after all) but the concept stuck in my head. We who read may not really understand what we who write are saying. But the important thing is that this does not matter.

To use my painter/artist analogy, a painting has a specific meaning to the artist. He may try to explain that meaning. He may not. What is important to the viewer is what meaning the viewer perceives. What meaning the artist has is important primarily to the artist. If, by some chance, the two meanings converge then communication has occurred.

What I have come to understand over the years is that if the meanings do not converge, maybe a more important thing has happened. In the case of blogs, comments serve to reveal that important thing.

You, dear readers, teach me something about myself. You provide a different perspective. You also validate my own.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Wouldn't it be nice if...

If only things were not as they are.

If only everyone would contribute whatever they are capable of without need for payment.

If only everyone would take only what they need.

If only everyone would pitch in to help a neighbor in need.

If only everyone greeted everyone else with a smile.

If only everyone respected everyone else.

If only everyone picked up after themselves.

If only no one stole from others.

If only no one lied.

And it could be, only if we weren't human.

But then there'd be cities, no trains, or planes, or automobiles. No large farms, no Ipods, no computers (no blogs!), no cell phones, no space exploration, no Hubble telescope, no cure for polio, no cancer research, no movies, no books, no museums to hold and exhibit works of art and catalog achievements of mankind, no bicycles, no electricity, no tall buildings, no mass production of anything, no refrigerators, no air conditioners, no schools, just a constant daily struggle to survive. Like all the other animals.

But we are human and that means we are never satisfied with what we have. We always want more. More for ourselves, more for our families, better lives for our children, less struggle, safer lives, easier lives. And we reward those who help provide these things. And so people try to provide them. And so civilization advances and lives are better and safer and easier.

We are what we are.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Magic Smoke

When I was in the Navy, the Powers That Be decided I was suited to a technical rating. I didn't agree but who was I, a mere cog in the engine of life, to challenge them? So I went along with it, faking it all the way.

When I enlisted, the recruiter (an archaic military term meaning "I lie like your ex-girlfriend but do it with sincerity") showed me a book which had blurbs (and pictures, I liked the pictures) about the various jobs one could have in the Navy. None particularly overwhelmed me, I was just interested in getting on a ship and going somewhere, anywhere. The recruiter was not happy when I chose "Boatswain's Mate" (by the way, that is pronounced "Bos'n's Mate" with a long "oh"). He thought I should have strived for something more important than what he considered "sea fodder" so he suggested I go in as "unrated". Which, ironically, is how I felt most of my life.

In any event, after a longish interview in Boot Camp on what was laughingly called "career day", it was mutually decided that I should be a Sonarman*. I say "mutually" even though I had no real say in the choice. That is one of the first important lessons of the military; the last choice you actually had was to enlist. After that, all decisions will be made for you. And you will be happy with them, regardless.

After Boot Camp (subject for another time, another post), I went through a basic electricity/electronics prep course (BEEP school in the parlance) and then was sent to learn how to be a Sonarman. In the Navy, the courses are set up as Lessons. At the beginning of each Lesson is a summary of what will be taught. However, it is clearly stated in this manner:

In this lesson, you will learn how sound is propagated.
In this lesson, you will become proficient in tuning the SQS-23 SONAR scope.

Nothing was anything other than an order. Therefore, you could not fail because failing was disobedience of an order and you could be sent to the brig for that. Or so we believed. We later found that it just meant they would not recognize gross incompetence and pass you anyway.

There is more to Sonar than just having a good ear, there is also the maintenance and repair of the electronic equipment involved. In school, they teach you all about the equipment, how to fine tune it and how to repair it when it (inevitably) breaks. What they don't talk about is the importance of the Magic Smoke.

You see, inside of every piece of equipment that has electrical components is something called "Magic Smoke". It is the secret to all electronic and electrical devices. I learned this once I was out in the fleet from the more experienced Sonarmen.

You could always repair, tune, or otherwise maintain any piece of electronic gear that retained its Magic Smoke. It was sometimes possible to repair equipment that had leaked a small amount of the Magic Smoke. A good technician was one who could tell by the amount of Magic Smoke that was released whether there was a Snowball's Chance (technical term) of salvaging the item in question.

The important thing to know, also, is how to be "somewhere else" when the Magic Smoke is released. This is not because the Magic Smoke is toxic, or harmful in any way to humans, but because you could not be blamed for its release if you were "somewhere else" at the time. You strived to be "nowhere around" at all times of trouble with the equipment. This was not only practiced within our particular group but within all divisions onboard. It was most amazing to learn that no one was ever around when something went wrong anywhere on the ship.

You could always tell when the Magic Smoke had leaked out. First, something would have stopped working. Second, there was that odor of burnt plastic or insulation in the air. Since the equipment was housed together in a room (ironically called the "equipment room", making it easy to find), one could wander around that room, surreptitiously sniffing the air for the strongest scent of it, to find the offending device. This impressed officers that might be getting in the way trying to look important and necessary.

You would then point at the equipment, announce that it was the culprit, and determine if it was safe to open it up. At this point the officer who followed you into the room would ask the inevitable question, "How long to repair it?" My standard answer was "15 minutes, sir." Followed quickly by "It might take several hours to find out what exactly needs to be repaired, though." This bit of humor was lost on officers who actually thought they had asked a rational question. Sometimes we told them we would have to replace the Magic Smoke and hope for the best, most nodded sagely and left after that. Do not laugh, these guys were college educated. You could not hope to fool the Chief Petty Officer, who barely got through high school, with that one.

Sometimes, when you screwed up and were in the vicinity rather than "somewhere else", you actually saw the Magic Smoke get out. This was bad. It meant that you might be responsible and that you would likely be tasked to repair it. That always seemed strange to me, why would you want the guy who broke it to attempt the repair? Didn't he just reveal his lack of competence?

Sometimes, the repair was simple. Simply replacing the component from which the Magic Smoke had escaped with a new component which still had the Magic Smoke safely inside was sufficient. The replaced component was then tested to see if it could be repaired also. The best way to do that, I learned, was to perform the "Float Test". This was done easily out at sea. You took the suspect component to the rail and dropped it into the ocean. If it did not float, it was deemed unrepairable.

I have probably violated all kinds of security laws by revealing these closely guarded military secrets.

* SONAR stands SOund Navigation And Ranging. The Navy loves acronyms. The military, in general, loves acronyms. This is because all titles, all names, are complex and lengthy and impossible to rattle off authoritatively. So, someone like the Secretary of the Navy becomes "SecNav" or the Commander of the US Navy Pacific Fleet is called "CINCPACFLT" (pronounced "sync-pack-fleet", and so on. Of course, we in the fleet always had our own names for these things, which were more descriptive but not acceptable in family friendly forums.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

At Sea

The most overwhelming memory I have of my travels in the Navy are olfactory in nature. Beyond the visual, beyond the tactile, the fragrances and odors were sometimes the most impressive experiences.

The sea is a strange environment. There are times when it appears solid enough to walk on but, peering closely, you realize it is translucent like a masterfully waxed floor. The illusion of depth in the tile is no illusion on the ocean. The depth is real, almost unimaginable. I didn't find it to be blue, as in the "deep blue sea", rather more a deep green tinted black. It's impossible for me to describe, there are no words or phrases which capture it. The color does not exist anywhere else.

A sunset at sea can be one of the most magnificent sights you could ever see, rivaled only by a sunrise. The ocean reflects the reds, oranges, and yellows, the sky deepens into very deep blue with the hint of maroon. I have seen sunsets where you would think the sky was on fire, the other ships just large black shadows.

At night, the stars are simply incredible. A Navy ship operates in a darkened condition. Only red light is allowed. The idea is to not provide a target to an enemy vessel. Whether actually at war or not, this condition is maintained. Once far enough offshore, without any light from a coastal city, the sky is brilliant with stars. The only places on land that compare is somewhere far out in the desert or on a remote mountain. Even then, I'd say the view of the night sky at sea is superior.

On rough seas at night, the phosphorus creates a glow all around the ship. On calm nights the glow is mostly at the stern, in the wake, and along the bow. The glow is actually from plankton, roiled up, "excited", by the vessel's churning of the water around it.

The ship is "alive" while at sea, the constant vibration of the engines, and from the movement in the water, makes the steel deck feel soft. Once in port, tied up, with the engines shut down and silent, the deck becomes hard as concrete. The ship feels "dead."

At sea, the smell of salt either disappears or is so pervasive that the nose ignores it most of the time. There is no fishy smell, like in a harbor or along a seashore. It is clean and fresh. On a Navy ship, you smell the ship; the odors of cooking, of the diesels, sometimes the steam escaping from the laudry or the boilers, sometimes the fresh paint, the smell of sweat in the compartments, the ozone in the electronics spaces, and coffee, stale and fresh.

As you approach a port, if the wind is right, you smell the land almost before you see it. A place like Hawaii smells like a subtle, powerful, perfume. It is a mixture of flowers and soil similar to what I used to smell when the wind came from the west, over the land, in Florida. A sweet, rich smell, but not overpowering like a florist's shop. That changes as you enter Pearl Harbor. Once inside the harbor, the scent is overwhelmed by the oil, fumes, and garbage; the stench of harbors all over the world. But the perfume is always there in Hawaii, no matter, always in the background of all other smells.

Even harbors have their individual smells. A port in Taiwan, like Kaohsiung, is a working port with small shipyards all around, as well as multitudes of small fishing boats and ferries to bring sailors to and from their moored ships. The scent would be of garbage, welding, diesel and gas fumes from the many small boats, occasional gunpowder from the celebration of a boat launch. You quickly become inured to the stench as it permeates the ship and is eventually ignored. In town, there seemed to be an equal number of restaurants and bars, the odors mingling.

Arriving in the Philippines, the experience is very much like Hawaii. It is a lush tropical place and it floats out to you as you enter Subic Bay on the island of Luzon. And then the aroma is pushed aside by the stink of oil, garbage and diesel so that it just lingers in the background to be pushed back into your nostrils by an occasional breeze from the right direction. In town, Olongapo, the smell was mostly of food cooking on open grills. There were street vendors cooking chicken and beef and pork and the aroma filled the air. Fragrant, appetizing, essenses spilled from the doors of the many restaurants while beer and alcohol soured the air around the much more prevalent bars.

Between each port, time at sea would cleanse the nostrils of the port you just left. Each approach to land would, therefore, seem unique and new.

About the only port that seemed uninviting was our home port of Long Beach, California. As you neared the coast, before you could have seen land, you saw the brown cloud of smog that envelops the Los Angeles Basin. The smell is of refineries, mostly. A atmosphere full of hydrocarbons that dulled the senses and ruined the appetite. There were many men aboard that welcomed it, it meant home, girlfriends or wives they had left behind months before, families they missed.

But, for me, it was a sad time, an end to the adventure.

Monday, January 5, 2009

It works! It works!

Yes, the scanner works, the printer works, it only took an hour to get the software installation done because (a) I do not read instructions and (b) I don't read instructions even when things do not go well. It's an ego thing... If you don't have one, you wouldn't understand.

Anyway, here's the first three things I scanned. If you click on them, you will get a better view.

My family at Easter in 1954. We are in front of my grandmother's house (called a row house then, now would be a townhouse)

My mother, me, and our dog (Cindy) at Christmas in 1954 (I think).

Finally, remember the Bike Shop I talked about? Well, this is what it looked like inside. THis is the one across the street from my elementary school. Also taken in 1954. We didn't seem to take too many other pictures in the other years. But I will keep digging.

Censorship and Debate

Is censorship bad? I think most people would say so. I'd agree. But is it what we you think it is? Is it only by government? Are there other, more subtle, forms? And, even official censorship isn't always bad.

Censorship in time of war. Censorship when it comes to children and violence or sexuality (done through a ratings system). There is always censorship in any society. When we say "censorship", we really mean "excessive, undesired, censorship".

In 1939, the use of the word "damn" in the movie "Gone with the Wind" was controversial. It was forbidden to be used except under an amendment to the Production Code passed that year by the Motion Picture Association. Compare that to the language commonly used in today's movies.

In 1962 there was a controversy over the casting of Sue Lyon (then 14 years of age) to play the title role in "Lolita." In the 1997 remake, Dominique Swain was 17 when she was cast in the role and there was no controversy. But the remake was much racier, more daring, than the 1962 version.

But there are several types of censorship we need to consider. The first one we think of is governmental and primarily political. It is the one actually addressed by the First Amendment. Political speech is protected under that Amendment. In time, rulings by the US Supreme Court extended that protection to a great many other areas of expression. Today, I think the Founding Fathers might be appalled (or at least surprised) by the loose interpretation of Freedom of Speech.

Parental censorship is common and considered proper. Few question the right of a parent to determine what his or her child can view or hear. Which often leads to community issues like library access to the internet and how unrestricted it should be.

There is also self-censorship. This covers a wide area including, but not limited to, how you speak in public, what you consider acceptable to write about in a blog, even in speaking to a loved one. Honesty may not always be the best policy so you censor your comments about how your wife (or husband) has gained a few extra pounds.

But there is another form of censorship, one I like to call social censoring. It probably has gone on since humans first began gathering in clans or tribes. For centuries it was the means by which a segment of society has been silenced. In more modern times, with the spreading of the concept of freedom of speech, that has been lessened. But a new form has taken hold, a form which we call "hate speech" restrictions. Certain terms have been made taboo, even actionable. For the most part, this has done good. People have become more aware of offensive terms, more sensitive to others' perceptions of insult.

In some ways, however, it has gone a bit far. When college students steal student papers from newsracks on campus because they find the opinions expressed to be "racist" or "sexist" or "homophobic". When otherwise well meaning groups stage large protests outside of churches because of the religious support of an initiative, when hecklers attempt to disrupt a speech, or shout down a speaker, or demand one be uninvited, the concept of freedom of speech is threatened. Demonstrations which are aimed at denying others the freedom to express themselves simply because the ideas expressed are deemed "hate speech", or "offensive", are wrong, in my opinion.

You cannot have public debate if only one side is considered to be acceptable to be expressed. That is not freedom of expression, just the opposite.When even defending the right of someone to say what society might consider to be offensive is considered to be defending the concepts expressed, well, that is the worst brand of censorship.